Gay and bisexual men will be able to donate blood more easily from next summer following a landmark policy change, the NHS blood service has announced. The move has been welcomed by campaigners who have fought to overturn rules that “perpetuate inequality”.
Men in a long-term relationship with another man will be able to donate blood from next summer, NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) said. The rules currently require all men who have had sex with men to abstain from sex for three months to give blood.
The change in policy will mean risk assessments for donors will be conducted on an individual basis, rather than a population-based one. It will mean that anyone who has the same sexual partner for more than three months will be able to donate if there is no known exposure to a sexually transmitted infection and they are not using anti-HIV drugs PreP or PEP, NHSBT said.
The health check questionnaire will include new behaviour-based indicators to assess potential donors, including considering whether a donor exhibits high-risk sexual behaviour such as having multiple partners or taking part in “chemsex” – having sex while under the influence of stimulants.
Campaigners applauded the step, with Ethan Spibey, the founder of the pressure group FreedomToDonate, saying: “Almost six years ago, our group of volunteers set out to rewrite the rules that had perpetuated inequality and prevented thousands of potentially safe donors from donating for too long. Today, we welcome a pioneering new policy and are immensely proud that more people than ever will be able to fairly give the life-saving gift of blood.”
He added that the change in policy will allow for the “potential of so many safe donors” to be fulfilled, noting that the blood service had announced at the beginning of 2020 that it needed 68,000 new male donors.
Dr Michael Brady, medical director at the Terrence Higgins Trust, welcomed the move. He said “The UK is leading the way in ensuring that blood donation is more inclusive and now will allow many more gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men to donate blood.”
He added that there is “certainly more work to do” and the charity will “continue to work to ensure that our blood donation service is inclusive and evidence based”, noting restrictions remain in place for former injecting drug users among others.
Su Brailsford, associate medical director at NHSBT, which oversees blood donations in England and transplants across the UK, said: “Patients rely on the generosity and altruism of donors for their life-saving blood. We are proud to have the safest blood supply in the world and I’m pleased to have concluded that these new changes to donor selection will keep blood just as safe.”
She pledged to keep working with LGBT representatives, patients and donors in the run-up to next summer to ensure the donor assessment process is “inclusive and done well”.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, welcomed the step, adding that it “recognises individuals for the actions they take, rather than their sexual preference”.
The policy change is the latest easing of restrictions for donors. A lifetime ban on gay men donating was reduced to a one-year abstinence from sex requirement in 2011. It was then cut to a three-month requirement in 2017.