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Hamilton signals a willingness to end NI's gay blood ban

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 12/12/2015

Health Minister Simon Hamilton
Health Minister Simon Hamilton

A lifetime ban on gay men donating blood in Northern Ireland should be axed if a Government advisory group confirms it is safe, DUP Health Minister Simon Hamilton has said.

The ban was put in place across the UK during the Aids crisis of the 1980s, but was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in November 2011.

New rules were introduced which allowed blood donations from men whose last sexual contact with another man was more than a year earlier, but Northern Ireland did not adopt the changes. A judge then ruled that former Health Minister Edwin Poots did not have the power to retain the ban.

The Court of Appeal is currently considering if blood donation is a devolved matter or whether responsibility for it lies with UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

When first appointed back in May, Mr Hamilton said he would be guided by "science and patient safety" when deciding whether to lift the ban on blood donations.

In a response to an Assembly question, Mr Hamilton said yesterday that no policy decision can be taken while court proceedings were ongoing.

He said he had written to Mr Hunt asking that the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs provide the current state of evidence regarding the risks for recipients of blood and to give their assessment of the levels of risk.

He added: "If such a piece of work affirms emerging evidence that blood safety has been increased in Great Britain, it would be my view that such evidence should be followed and that Northern Ireland should adopt the same policy on blood donations from men who have sex with men as the rest of the United Kingdom."

This would be a change in position over the issue from the previous two DUP Health Ministers, Mr Poots and Jim Wells.

In 2013 a judge said Mr Poots did not have the power to keep an "irrational" lifetime ban on gay men giving blood here.

The High Court also found he had breached the ministerial code by failing to take the matter before the Executive.

His successor Mr Wells said he also supported a ban. The ex-minister maintained the ban on the basis of ensuring public safety.

The Rainbow Project, a gay rights association in Northern Ireland, welcomed the latest announcement but said more clarity was needed on the issue.

Project director John O'Doherty said: "The minister has not yet stated that the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men should be lifted. We urge the minister to clarify his position in this regard.

"All available evidence shows that moving from a lifetime ban to a one-year deferral has not had a detrimental impact on the security of blood transfusions in the UK."

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