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Gay blood donation rule relaxation delayed in Northern Ireland

The head of the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service says a lack of staff and resources is behind the hold-up..

By Alastair James

Words: Alastair James; pictures: Pexels and Pixabay

Gay and bisexual men in Northern Ireland won’t be able to give blood for another few months due to a delay in changes to the rules, as reported by the BBC.

The current restrictions, which prevent men who have sex with men from donating blood if they’ve been sexually active in the preceding three months, were due to be formally relaxed from Monday (14 June) following an announcement in December.

The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) says the delay is down to a lack of staff and training resources, and the changes will take effect in September.

“Moving at pace”

Speaking to Attitude, NIBTS’ Supply Chain Manager, Matt Gillespie, said it was regrettable that the changes can’t be implemented in Northern Ireland the same time as the rest of the UK. He said the Covid-19 pandemic had had a substantial impact on services.

“Blood services have put a lot of resources into ensuring the donation process has remained safe for both donors and staff. Being the smallest of the UK blood services NIBTS has less staff and has found it difficult to meet this challenge. This has meant less time being available for other projects including the implementation of the recommendations.

“Additionally, these changes require a lot of medical input and NIBTS has been without a permanent medical director for over a year and has had reduced medical staff over the same period. This has now been resolved and a new medical director started in April and an additional medical consultant started with NIBTS at the beginning of May”

Matt has told Attitude they hope to have the changes implemented by 6 September but recognised that staff training can be lengthy and that they need to be able to answer any queries from donors.

He also says a lack of government in Northern Ireland prevented getting approval to introducing some changes. As lockdown has eased, the service has seen a huge increase in demand, which could last for several months, he adds. But, he also added, the service is introducing the changes as quickly as possible.

NIBTS’ chief executive Karin Jackson told the BBC they are “moving at pace”.

The changes are still set to come into effect in England and Wales on Monday (14 June) – World Blood Donor Day.

Attitude has contacted the Scottish Blood Services for an update on the status on planned changes in the regions.

“All donors, including heterosexual men and women, have potential to carry infections.”

The relaxation of donation rules were welcomed by campaigners when they were announced last December. The UK government described the changes as a “landmark” said they were as a result of recommendations from the Advisory Committee for the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs.

The goverment said the change makes the UK one of the first countries in the world to adopt a more individualised risk-based approach to donor selection criteria.

The Terrence Higgins Trust’s medical director, Dr. Michael Brady, said: “Eligibility to donate blood will now be based on the behaviours identified as being at highest risk of infection, rather than gender or sexuality.

“This means the removal of the three-month deferral period for gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. Welcome changes include the differentiation between oral and anal sex, and for those whose partner is HIV positive and virally suppressed due to six months or more of adherence to treatment.”

However, campaigners including Ethan Spibey, the founder of the group Freedom to Donate, said there was more work to do.