What does the change in blood donation rules for gay men mean in Northern Ireland?
The government this week announced plans to relax of the rules regarding the donation of blood by men who have sex with men – but only in England and Scotland.
Currently, the rules ban men who have sex with men from donating blood if they have had sex in the last 12 months.
A total lifetime ban for men who have sex with men had been in place from 1981 across the UK, but this was replaced in 2011 in England and Scotland with a ban on those who have had sex in the last 12 months.
In Northern Ireland, the lifetime ban was retained under DUP health ministers Edwin Poots and Jim Wells, before being relaxed by then heath minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin in June 2016.
The relaxing of the rules, banning only those who have had sex in the last 3 months rather than 12 months, should take place in early 2018, but only in England and Scotland.
The rules are being changed following recommendations from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).
With improved screening technology and evidence that the rules are being kept by donors, the government agreed that the planned changes are “based on the most up to date scientific evidence and medical advances, which will offer more people the opportunity to donate blood without affecting the safety of the blood supply”.
However, health is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland, meaning its health minister must sign-off on any rule change.
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The country currently has no government and no health minister, after the power sharing executive collapsed earlier this year.
Several deadlines have come and gone for the establishment of a new government, and the DUP’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservative Party at Westminster has seemingly not helped.
The BBC reports that despite this impasse, “preparatory work” is now being undertaken by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to reduce the waiting period for blood donation by men who have sex with men.
A final decision will have to be made by a health minister in Stormont, once a government is formed.