Fewer people are signing up to donate blood in the UK despite a major government campaign launched two years ago.
(Bloomberg) — Fewer people are signing up to donate blood in the UK despite a major government campaign launched two years ago.
Registrations of new donors over the past two years have been at their lowest levels since at least 2016, according to data posted by the National Health Service last month.
“Blood is recognized as such a precious commodity, so we have to think really carefully about how we use it, when we use it, and how much we are realistically going to need,” said Fleur Cantle, president of the Royal Society of Medicine’s emergency division.
Just over 310,000 people registered to donate blood from April 2022 to March 2023, more than 100,000 fewer than in the same time period from 2019 to 2020. The number of first-time donations recovered slightly after the pandemic, before sinking again to below 2019 levels. The number of active donors has risen about 6% from a record low during the pandemic.
Strikes and Sickness
Blood donations were affected by a shortage of health staff and persistent strikes by discontented workers, according to the latest NHS annual blood and transplant report. Some blood collection teams had a staffing turnover of about 60% over the last year, it said. Covid-19 and other illnesses contributed to staff shortages, “resulting in lower collection capacity, regrettably high levels of donor cancellations and long waiting times on many blood sessions.”
Staff absence rates in the NHS due to sickness in 2022 were 29% higher than in 2019 and never fell below the peak pre-pandemic rate, according to a report from the Nuffield Trust, an independent think tank. Mental health-related absences were up 26%.
The pandemic worsened an ongoing decline in the number of blood donations, causing the number of active donors to fall to its lowest level since 1996. From 2010 to 2021, the number of blood donations fell by 26% — a steeper decline than all but two of the 22 European Blood Alliance members with available data in that time-frame. The situation is starting to improve with 795,000 active donors recorded in the year through March 2023, compared to approximately 750,000 two years earlier.
It’s crucial for health services to maintain a steady supply of donors, as most blood donations are only good for a relatively short period of time — seven days for platelets, which help with clotting, and 35 days for red blood cells, according to the NHS.
The effect of the pandemic lingers. Foot traffic in some metropolitan areas where key donation centers are located still hasn’t recovered, according to the Royal College of Pathologists, and a ban on donations from people with long Covid symptoms threatens to shrink the eligible group of donors further. As many as 2 million people, or about 3% of the country’s population, are estimated to have long Covid.
Restricting those with long Covid from donating blood is “a perfectly sensible decision to make in view of all the uncertainties surrounding what’s causing long Covid,” said Charles Shepherd, a medical adviser to the Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Association. But the rule does have a “significant effect on the potential supply of blood,” especially since many people affected by long Covid are otherwise healthy young adults, he added.
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Shortages prompted the NHS to issue its first-ever amber alert last October, saying that blood stocks were predicted to fall below a two-day supply, compared with the typical six-day supply that hospitals are supposed to maintain.
The NHS asked hospitals to protect blood supplies, including by postponing non-urgent elective surgeries. Stocks improved, but the country remained in pre-amber alert status for the rest of 2022 due to strikes (as workers protested against below-inflation pay rises), according to the NHS. Blood stocks for red blood cells and platelets are both currently normal.
The NHS halved training times for new employees to just four weeks and over-hired to “ensure that we have enough staff to maintain our operations and to counter-act the effects of high turnover and absence,” according to its latest blood and transplant report. Visas for foreign health and care workers are alleviating concerns to an extent, but some experts warn this may not be a sustainable long-term solution.
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Recruiting and retaining staff has been a challenge in the NHS for some time, exacerbated by working conditions made even more stressful by the pandemic, said Lucina Rolewicz, a researcher at the Nuffield Trust who co-authored the report on sickness absences. Increased pressure at work is both a cause and a consequence of high absences and low retention, creating a “vicious cycle,” she said.
Pressures on the NHS as a whole have prompted staff departures and hurt the performance of remaining staff, said Louise Dalingwater, a professor of British politics at Sorbonne Université in Paris. “This will have an impact obviously on being able to ensure essential supplies, which, of course, includes blood supplies.”
(Changes headline to clarify its new donors. Adds data on active donors in fourth and seventh paragraphs.)
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