Half of Brits uncomfortable kissing someone living with HIV, as stigma-busting garden debuts at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Graham Robson May 18, 2024

Half of British adults (50%) would be uncomfortable kissing someone living with HIV, according to brand new public attitudes data released by charity Terrence Higgins Trust ahead of its show garden, which will celebrate the progress in the fight against HIV at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show from Tuesday, 21 May.

The Terrence Higgins Trust Bridge to 2030 garden, which is fully funded by Project Giving Back, reclaims the iconic tombstone – which was the chilling centrepiece of the Government’s awareness campaign at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1987 – to celebrate and champion how much HIV has changed since then.

But the new data shows how public perceptions lag way behind the medical progress, despite the UK aiming to be the first country in the world to end new HIV cases by 2030.

Almost 40 years ago, the Government’s message was “it’s a deadly disease and there’s no known cure”. While that was true at the time, award-winning garden designer Matthew Childs has reclaimed the tombstone as a bridge to take visitors to the show on a journey from the fear of the 1980s through to today when you can live a long, healthy life with HIV.

The new YouGov polling of 2,267 Brits reveals why the charity’s presence at this year’s RHS Chelsea is so crucial, with four in 10 (41%) uncomfortable going on a date with someone with HIV. While just 16% of respondents are comfortable having sex with someone with HIV who is on effective treatment.

This comes despite the fact that people living with HIV who are taking their treatment as prescribed – around 98% of those living with diagnosed HIV in the UK – cannot pass it on to their partners. But, the data shows fewer than a quarter of UK adults (23%) know this fact to be true.

The garden is the vision of award-winning designer Matthew Childs and is funded by Project Giving Back, which is the grant-making charity that funds gardens for good causes at RHS Chelsea. After the show, the garden will be relocated to Croydon Health Services NHS Trust’s sexual health clinic to provide an inviting permanent space of calm and reflection for patients and visitors.

The charity hopes its presence at the world-famous gardening show will engage people from around the world in the massive progress in successfully preventing, testing for and treating HIV. The beautiful garden also serves as a warning for the country not to miss the opportunity to end new HIV cases by 2030. If achieved, it would be the first time a virus has been stopped without a vaccine or cure.

More positively, the polling shows 61% of Brits know that someone living with HIV and on treatment can have the same lifespan as anyone else, while 38% are aware that women living with HIV can have babies who are HIV negative. Thanks to routine HIV testing during pregnancy, there are now almost no babies born with HIV in the UK.

Louise Vallace

Louise Vallace, a woman living with HIV from London, said: “My world completely changed when I was told I was living with HIV. I spent the next 10 years in silence and didn’t tell a single person about my diagnosis. This resulted in low self-esteem and a lot of self-stigma based on out-dated myths about HIV and worries about other people’s opinions of me. But, with the support of Terrence Higgins Trust, that all changed.

“The charity gave me the support, the platform and the framework to talk about living with HIV. I now live happily, confidently and openly with HIV and recently got married to the man I love. Because of all the medical progress that’s been made, we both have complete confidence that I cannot pass HIV onto him. I’m thrilled there is a garden about ending new HIV cases at Chelsea and I hope it will start many, many wonderful conversations about how much HIV has changed.”

Richard Angell

Richard Angell, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “It’s shocking and frustrating that public awareness of the huge progress we’ve made in the fight against HIV is still so low. We truly can end new HIV cases in this country by 2030, but tackling stigma and raising awareness of the realities of HIV is an absolutely crucial part of achieving that life-changing goal.

“That’s why we’re thrilled to be making our debut at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in partnership with our brilliant designer Matthew Childs and the support of Project Giving Back. Our beautiful garden tells a story of resilience, hope and opportunity, and is a rallying cry not to miss the opportunity to end the HIV epidemic in the UK.”

Matthew Child

Matthew Childs, garden designer of the Terrence Higgins Trust Bridge to 2030 garden, said: “Our beautiful garden is the complete antithesis of where we were in the 1980s when HIV was a scary, fearful and dark proposition. While the original tombstone from those iconic adverts was symbolic of all that fear and darkness, we’ve reclaimed it as a bridge into our garden which is revealed as the water rises and falls.

“It’s surrounded by resilient crevice-style planting to symbolise the awe-inspiring strength of the HIV community over the last 40 years and their tireless fight for progress which means the end of new HIV cases is an achievable goal. But, as shown by the low levels of knowledge about HIV today, Terrence Higgins Trust’s work remains absolute crucial today and in the years to come.”