Scrap discriminatory blood donation restriction, Labour MPs tell Sajid Javid

Elliot Chappell
©Elnur/Shutterstock.com

Taiwo Owatemi and Sarah Owen have written to Sajid Javid demanding that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care remove a restriction that “predominately affects Black people’s ability to give blood”.

In their letter, the Labour MPs highlighted a requirement stipulating that people who have had sex with a “partner who has, or you think may have been, sexually active in parts of the world where HIV/AIDS is very common” – adding that this includes “most countries in Africa” – wait three months before giving blood.

Writing ahead of Black History Month in October, the health and social care select committee members told Javid that the restriction is a barrier to “the NHS Blood and Transplant’s current push to get more Black people to give blood”.

The Labour MPs quoted the government website, which currently states: “At the moment we need Black donors because of a rise in demand for some rare blood types that are more common in people of Black heritage.”

“Black donors are ten times more likely – than White people – to have the Ro and B positive blood types urgently needed to treat the 15,000 people in the UK suffering from the blood disorder sickle cell,” Owatemi and Owen told the minister.

“Subtypes are important when someone has regular transfusions as they need blood that matches their own as closely as possible. Despite this currently, only 1% of current blood donors are Black.”

Owatemi and Owen pointed out that FAIR (For the Assessment of Individualised Risk), a steering group advising UK health departments, recommended that the rule be changed and that the Scottish and Welsh governments have complied.

The pair also noted that the UK government’s advisory committee on the safety of blood, tissues and organs also supports removing the three-month deferral period.

They added: “It is deeply disappointing that the UK government has chosen not to implement the recommendation of two scientific processes and to dismantle unfair barriers to donating blood when there is a shortage in blood and plasma donation from Black communities.”

Terrence Higgins Trust medical director Michael Brady said: “The government should always be working with the latest science on HIV transmission risk, whilst continuing to ensure the safety of our blood supply.

“These rules are outdated and discriminatory and removing them will only encourage much needed donors from black and ethnic minority communities. The fact that the rule has been abolished in Scotland and Wales makes it even more essential that we address this in England.”

The letter from Owatemi and Owen follows a number of parliamentary submitted by Florence Eshalomi MP earlier in the week, including one in which she asks the Secretary of State to provide the “evidential basis” for not removing the restriction.

“It’s shocking that in 2021 some members of the black community are still obstructed from saving lives by becoming new blood donors,” head of NHS services as the Terrence Higgins Trust Glenda Bonde said.

“The government is crying out for new blood and plasma donors from members of the black community in England but this antiquated ban is hurtful, discriminatory and perpetuates a stigma about HIV that is just wrong.

“Ending this injustice will cost the government nothing but will lead to more blood donors and have zero impact on blood safely – everyone’s top priority.”

Below is the full text of the letter sent to Sajid Javid.

Dear Secretary of State,

As individual members of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, we are writing to raise our concerns about the current blood donation rules in England. On 14th June 2021, your predecessor the Rt. Hon Matt Hancock announced that the Department for Health and Social Care would implement a number of the recommendations from the independent FAIR (For the Assessment of Individualised Risk) group.

Whilst we welcome the decision to finally implement the best science in the eligibility for gay and bisexual men, we are disappointed that the UK government is ignoring its own scientists and continues to uphold a discriminatory restriction in England that predominately affects Black people’s ability to give blood.

The restriction relates to a three-month deferral period for anyone who has a “partner who has, or you think may have been, sexually active in parts of the world where HIV/AIDS is very common” and references “most countries in Africa”. In line with the recommendations from FAIR, both the Scottish government and Welsh government have removed this question but it has yet to be scrapped in England.

This question is vague and difficult to interpret by both the public and healthcare professionals. It also acts as a significant barrier for many people who may wish to donate blood, and this comes at the expense of the NHS Blood and Transplant’s current push to get more Black people to give blood. The website states: “At the moment we need Black donors because of a rise in demand for some rare blood types that are more common in people of Black heritage.”

Black donors are ten times more likely – than White people – to have the Ro and B positive blood types urgently needed to treat the 15,000 people in the UK suffering from the blood disorder sickle cell. Subtypes are important when someone has regular transfusions as they need blood that matches their own as closely as possible. Despite this currently, only 1% of current blood donors are Black.

We are also aware that the UK government’s advisory committee on the safety of blood, tissues and organs also supports the removal of this unhelpful and inaccurate question based on the current evidence.

In practical terms, this current rule in England means that someone who is in a long-term, monogamous relationship with someone from or who has ever lived in Africa would most probably be unable to donate blood. It seems perverse that where the UK government has chosen to follow the evidence by relaxing rules for gay and bisexual men, it has not followed that same approach with other groups. Furthermore, it is unclear what equalities impact assessment the Department for Health and Social Care has conducted to inform this policy.

We note that a letter was sent by the One Voice Network, Terrence Higgins Trust, and National AIDS Trust to raise concerns about this rule on 14 June but as of yet there has been no response.

It is deeply disappointing that the UK government has chosen not to implement the recommendation of two scientific processes and to dismantle unfair barriers to donating blood when there is a shortage in blood and plasma donation from Black communities.

We therefore urge your department to rethink this position and ensure more people can help treat and save the lives of others. If there are specific barriers to addressing this, we ask that this is communicated within the public domain, and steps to address these are laid out.

Yours sincerely,

Taiwo Owatemi MP
Sarah Owen MP

Everything Labour.
Every weekday morning.

By clicking ‘subscribe’ you confirm you have read and agree to our privacy policy

More from LabourList