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Blood Donation

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of current numbers of voluntary blood donation, and whether they intend to take steps to encourage new donors.

My Lords, the Department of Health and NHS Blood and Transplant have regular discussions about how to promote donation in England, including with ethnic-minority communities. This includes a range of media marketing activity, partnerships and engagement with and investment in ethnic-minority and faith organisations. To encourage new donors, NHS Blood and Transplant conducts regular campaigns across the year, such as in National Blood Week and Black History Month in October.

On the 75th anniversary week of the National Health Service, I seek an assurance that, with the changing nature of society, the blood transfusion service, which is so essential for so many of us, has sufficient supplies to meet any foreseeable needs. What arrangements are in place between the four nations of the United Kingdom and other countries worldwide, with so many different needs? What is our contribution to be? How are we attracting new donors?

My Lords, the Welsh Blood Service is responsible for blood collection across Wales. The WBS hosts around 1,200 donation sessions a year, using around 185 venues across Wales and collecting 85,000 units of blood to support 19 hospitals in Wales. The WBS has an active national donor recruitment and retention programme. The system is slowly returning to its pre-pandemic model of collection. The WBS recognises a critical challenge in the recruitment of new donors and is about to launch a five-year strategy, which realises the importance of building and sustaining the blood supply chain for Wales. The four nations of the United Kingdom have very good blood donor services and work closely together, but blood donor services are devolved to Wales and Scotland.

My Lords, I wish the NHS a happy 75th anniversary. My noble friend the Minister will be aware that there is a new drug to treat sickle cell anaemia in a crisis, which is proving to be very effective. Can we ensure that people of African and Caribbean descent are not confused and know that they still need to give blood because, although this drug is very effective, there is a significant gap in the blood supplies from those communities within the NHS?

My noble friend raises a very important point. We welcome the approval and introduction of crizanlizumab to help treat sickle cell patients, and we hope that this promising advance will have a major impact on the reduction of painful episodes and improve the quality of life for patients suffering from sickle cell disorders. Although this is a positive step, it is vital that people living with sickle cell disorders continue to get regular blood transfusions and red cell exchanges. This does not change the increasing need to have patients with ethnically matched blood, so my noble friend raises a good point.

She asked what we are doing. There is a range of techniques to increase awareness of the need to donate. NHSBT continues to invest and to prioritise the diversification of its donor base, and increasing the supply of Ro Kell-negative blood is one of its priorities. It is being supported through increased investment in marketing and the engagement of donors of black Caribbean and black African ethnicity, who are more likely to have this blood type.

My Lords, I understand that the authority has a community grants programme designed to encourage more donations from black and minority-ethnic people. Can the Minister say a little more about how successful that has been and whether the Government intend to put more resources into it in future?

The number of regular donors of black heritage reached an all-time high of almost 20,000 in the year to April 2023. In addition, 7,427 people of black heritage gave blood for the first time between April 2022 and 2023. This year, the NHS needs 12,000 new black heritage donors, and we are working to that. The latest plan launched in National Blood Week focused on black heritage recruitment. We are making extremely good progress in England, but there is still a lot to do.

My Lords, is the Minister concerned that people may find it difficult to navigate the complex criteria for deciding whether they are eligible to give blood? Are the Government taking any steps to improve the information flow so that no one who can safely give blood is put off because they find the sign-up flow to be a barrier?

The noble Lord raises an important point. The barrier is not just to the black community but to us all as a nation. For example, there is a myth that, if you have an ear piercing or a tattoo, you can never give blood again. I remember that, when I came back from jet-setting around the world on business, I was asked where I had been, and Canada and certain states in America were not accepted for some reason. The noble Lord is absolutely right about those barriers. If you have a piercing or a tattoo you can still give blood, albeit after a few months.

My Lords, has any assessment been made of the reasons for ruling potential donors out on medical grounds? For example, several years ago I offered to give blood, but I had to be turned down because I had contracted hepatitis in Russia—that was not a political decision. I wonder whether the rules have perhaps changed and whether that might allow more people to come forward.

The noble Lord raises a good point, as he always does, but I am not a healthcare professional. You have to look at each individual on a case-by-case basis. If the noble Lord is up front with the blood and transplant service and tells it his story—albeit that it was in Russia—I do not see that as a reason not to give it another try; I cannot guarantee the outcome.

My Lords, one way of expanding the donor pool is to look at the criteria of those currently excluded. There have been five cases in history of variant CJD being transmitted in the UK by blood transfusion. Because of those five cases, the blood transfusion service stopped accepting donations from people who had received blood since 1980. As someone who received large quantities of blood as a five year-old child in 1984 following a car accident, I successfully gave blood for a time in my late teens before that ban was brought in and it stopped the practice. I know from direct experience that those whose lives have been saved by donations can have the strongest desire to contribute to the system and potentially save others. Hundreds of thousands of people are ready and willing to donate but are stopped by this rule, so do the Government expect to review this rule any time soon?

I am grateful to my noble friend for her question and for describing her particular circumstances; I thank her for her donations. I will take her specific case back to the department and respond in writing.

My Lords, last October included the first ever amber alert on blood stock shortages. More than 325,000 people registered to give blood; however, only one in four of those has attended an appointment since, and only one in five has donated blood since. Have the Government investigated why the numbers registering have not translated into blood donations? What steps are being taken to ensure that people not only register but follow through to make a donation?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who raises a very good point. Yes, there was an amber alert in 2022, when blood stocks fell below two days. That is not the case any more; stocks are currently at the target levels of six days. As the noble Baroness said in her very good question, some people register but either do not attend or attend for the first time only. The department is looking at the reasons for that, but that is why it has a thorough marketing campaign to write to people using social media. In my own case, I remember being telephoned on several occasions to go to donate. It is not easy and straightforward; I cannot say to the noble Baroness that there is a magic wand to prevent people registering but not turning up. This is a case of constantly keeping social media and marketing campaigns going to make sure that we get new donors. We need a new generation of donors; the average donor is, like me, over 45.

My Lords, on that point, does the Minister accept that, while we need new young donors, you can continue donating blood well into your 70s? I declare an interest as someone powering towards their 50th donation. Might it be an idea for the National Blood Service to resurrect the mobile donation services in your Lordships’ House, because many here, and in Parliament generally, are eligible to donate?

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness; she looks nowhere near 70. I took the liberty of asking that exact question before I came to the Dispatch Box, so that I could say to all noble Lords that they will be able to queue to give blood in the Palace of Westminster. I used to do it when I was a Member of Parliament. I have arranged for leaflets to go into the Library, so that all noble Lords can see where their local blood donor service is. There are a few in Westminster, but it would be good if noble Lords could do it at home in their communities.