As the first Health and Social Care Secretary from an ethnic minority, I feel a deep responsibility that our NHS should be open to everyone, and that we have a moral duty to tackle the disparities that exist in our nation.
This includes the opportunity to give blood, a selfless act which is a lifeline to so many people, either in an emergency or as part of long-term treatments.
Although it’s important that we have strong standards to make sure donated blood is safe, the current blanket rules on donation are outdated, and have created unnecessary barriers for people in some communities who want to help others.
As it stands, if a donor reports sexual activity with a partner who may have ever been sexually active in an area where HIV is endemic, including most of sub-Saharan Africa, they’re told to come back in three months after the last sexual contact with that partner.
I know that this has been demotivating for many Black donors, and that it’s stopped many more from coming forward.
So, from the end of this year, we’re changing the questionnaire for donors to remove the question about donors’ partners sexual activity in these areas.
This is part of our shift towards a fairer and more empathetic system, looking at individual risk, rather than blanket restrictions.
To be clear, the safety of those donating and those receiving blood and blood products remains the government’s highest priority.
It builds on years of work by the FAIR steering group, who have been looking at how we can use a more evidence-based approach. And both the FAIR steering group, and the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) agreed the question can safely be removed from the donor safety check.
And the donor form will still retain questions to ensure high risk behaviours are picked up, and those potential donors are deferred.
So, removing this question will not compromise the safety of blood supply in the UK.
In the UK, all donations are tested for a multitude of possible infections and there are robust monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure safety of donors and recipients. It is estimated that the risk of an HIV infectious donation not being detected is almost non-existent, corresponding to one in 23 million.
People who are Black African, Black Caribbean and of Black mixed ethnicity are more likely to have the rare blood sub-group, such as Ro, that many Black sickle cell patients need. This change will provide more opportunities for people to donate to meet the ongoing need for rarer blood types and help improve and save lives in the UK.
In June, we made another landmark change by lifting the blanket deferral for men who’ve had sex with men in the last three months, and these further changes mean even more people can come forward. But I know that we need to go even further to make donating blood even more inclusive, and I’ll be looking at what other steps we can take to reduce unnecessary barriers, just as I’ll be looking at how we can address racial inequalities in healthcare across the board.
I’d urge everyone who’s able to donate to register. At the moment only 1.5 per cent of current donors are Black and we urgently need more donors from these communities, especially those with rarer blood types.
So please come forward if you’re eligible; you’ll make a difference and you might save someone’s life.