Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s health minister, has refused to lift the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.

He has said that the current policy “should not be altered” because of safety concerns around HIV transmission.

Earlier this month, UK health ministers announced that the rules would be relaxed in England, Wales and Scotland on November 7th – allowing gay and bisexual men to donate if they refrain from sex for 12 months.

The decision followed a review by the government’s Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).

However, Mr Poots said Northern Ireland would not follow suit.

Writing to a UUP MLA, he said: “The Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) has confirmed that the risk of HIV infection would, although by a small margin, increase as a result of a relaxation in the present lifetime deferral.”

UUP health spokesman John McCallister told the Belfast Telegraph: “We cannot turn willing blood donors away because of out-dated and irrational prejudice.”

Gay rights group The Rainbow Project, which pressed Mr Poots for a decision on the matter, accused him of homophobia.

Project director John O’Doherty said: “If the minister truly wanted to minimise the risk in blood management he should be listening to the experts and ensuring that assessments are carried out on the basis of risk not sexual orientation.

“There is a serious need for more blood donors and a lifetime ban for any section of our community that is not based on actual scientific evidence is discriminatory.

“Since the decision has not been taken on the basis of scientific evidence I must call into question the minister’s motivation on this issue which appears to be homophobia, not healthcare.”