The National Blood Service has not been privatised

The National Blood Service has not been privatised

First, I’ll declare a conflict of interest. I have been a blood donor since about 1989, when as an undergraduate healthcare student I thought it seemed a moral thing to do. My donor card above is my most recent one and says I have made 5-9 donations, but due to failures in merged records I have probably donated around 25 units of blood over the years. My blood donations are motivated by a sense of altruism, rather than personal gain. (See my brief notes on Richard Titmus here in this post on the last political scare story about the National Blood Service).

I’m very much against paid blood donations or companies profiting from my donations.

So therefore, you might expect I’d be livid about the news on the front page of the Independent. Here is the screen shot of how it appears on the web.


From reading the headline the take home message is that the UK’s blood supply has been sold to a US equity firm, and the picture clearly shows units of blood. As a donor I’d be extremely upset by that. However, if you read on and take the trouble to look at the facts in this story this is clear misrepresentation of the truth.

  1. The UK government has sold the state owned NHS plasma supplier to a US private equity firm. The Blood Tranfusion Service was formed in 1946 (pre-NHS!). However, don’t let that fool you into thinking a historical part of the NHS has been flogged off. The UK government only bought this plasma business in 2002 because of a global plasma shortage at the time, combined with a 1998 decision to stop using UK plasma because of concern about Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. So the government are “privatising” a company (now called Plasma Resources UK – PRUK) they bought 11 years ago. They have not sold off the NHS Blood Transfusion Service.
  2. Despite its name, Plasma Resources UK uses US paid donors to make its plasma products – no UK donors are used (See point 1 for why). The US is the only country that has the capacity to provide plasma for the UK.
  3. If you are concerned about the fact US donors to this company are paid, note they have always been paid. Nothing has changed.
  4. Lord Owen is quoted as saying that he decided as Minister of Health in 1975 that the UK would be self-sufficient in blood products. The fact is this has been impossible since the decision to stop using UK plasma in 1998, and his comment that “It’s hard to conceive of a worse outcome for a sale of this particularly sensitive national health asset” is hard to understand unless you think US paid donors are a UK national health asset. There may be merits in a debate about private equity firms involvement, but that has no bearing on the NHS transfusion service.

So in summary, the sale of PRUK has absolutely nothing to do with the NHS Blood Donation service, and anything you read to suggest or imply otherwise is a lie. I understand that some people may find it a very tempting and emotive issue with which to push their particular political views on the NHS, but if they had any principles they would stop. The NHS Blood Transfusion is a national good, an asset built on goodwill and fellowship with other citizens of the UK. To undermine that goodwill with a scare story is shameful behaviour.

If you read the entire Independent article, you might get to the truth, but the set-up with the pictures of blood bags (not something PRUK supply) and the inflammatory headline may be all people read. Do people read entire articles? Well no, here Ben Goldacre explains paragraph 19:

“by the time you get to a story length of 8 to 11 paragraphs, on average, your readers read only half the story. A minority will make it to paragraph number 19, where, on this occasion, a fraction of the readers of the Daily Mail would have discovered that the central premise of the news story – that a new trial had found a 40% reduction in cancer through intermittent dieting – was false.

Caveats in paragraph 19 are common. This evidence strongly suggests that they are also a sop: they permit a defense against criticism, through the strictest, most rigorous analysis of a piece. But if your interest is informing a reader, they are plainly misleading.”

This is the second major attempt to scare people that the UK NHS Blood Service has been “privatised” by political ideologues who apparently feel their politics are more important than the truth or the continued supply of blood donations that are crucial for the health of the UK population. They should be ashamed, and parallels can be drawn with the anti-vaccination lobby in the UK that promoted false stories about MMR vaccine.

If you have read this far, please consider booking an appointment to donate blood.

UPDATE: The NHS Blood Transfusion Service has issued a statement.

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