The Department of Health has announced it will remove the lifetime blood donation ban on any man who has ever had gay sex.
Instead, there will be a one-year deferral period, meaning that men who have not had gay sex in the last 12 months may donate blood.
The change comes into force in England, Wales and Scotland on November 7th. Northern Ireland has not yet decided whether it will relax the rules.
But gay rights campaigners said gay men would still be treated unfairly under the new rules, as heterosexuals engaged in higher risk sexual activity are not subject to the same restrictions.
The ban was put in place in the 1980s after the AIDS crisis, as gay and bisexual men have higher rates of HIV. Currently, any man who has ever had protected or unprotected oral or anal sex with another man cannot donate blood.
The government’s Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) has been examining the issue for the last 18 months.
Although all blood is tested for HIV and other diseases, there is a period of time in which new infections cannot be detected.
The one-year deferral was chosen in part because of Hepatitis B, which disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men.
While there is a four-week window between transmission and detection of HIV, Hepatitis B can take up to a year to be cleared by the body.
HIV charities have generally welcomed the announcement, although they have called for further reviews if the rates of HIV and Hepatitis B in gay men fall.
National AIDS Trust, Terrence Higgins Trust and GMFA said in a joint statement: “Whilst we are pleased to welcome this rule change for gay men, we will continue to encourage SaBTO to regularly review their restrictions on blood donation related to sexual behaviour (including other groups in addition to gay men). Particularly as the epidemics around blood-borne viruses evolve and scientific evidence changes and advances.”
However, the European Commission has said that any ban on the basis of sexual orientation breaks EU laws.
In response to a recent written question, John Dalli, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, said that sexual behaviour should not be confused with sexual orientation.
Gay rights charity Stonewall said the change was a “step in the right direction” but called for donors to be screened purely on the basis of behaviour, rather than sexual orientation.
Chief executive Ben Summerskill said: “Safety must remain paramount. However at a time of national shortages in blood, everyone who can give blood at no risk to recipients should be able to donate.
“To retain a blanket ban on any man who has had sex with another man in the last year, even if he has only had oral sex, remains disproportionate on the basis of available evidence.”
He added: “Stonewall will continue to push for a donation system based on the real risks a potential donor poses. People wanting to donate blood should be asked similar questions – irrespective of their sexual orientation – that accurately assess their level of risk of infection. Sadly, the proposed new system will still fail to do this.”
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “Although the new policy is a big improvement on the existing
discriminatory rules, a 12 month ban is still excessive and unjustified. Most gay and bisexual men do not have HIV and will never have HIV.
“If they always have safe sex with a condom, have only one partner and test HIV negative, their blood is safe to donate. They can and should be allowed to help save lives by becoming donors.”
Mr Tatchell added: “We also need a major drive to vaccinate gay and bisexual men against Hepatitis A and B, to prevent these infections getting into the blood supply.”