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Jim Wells: I back Edwin Poots' gay blood ban

By Victoria O'Hara

Health Minister Jim Wells says he continues to support a ban on gay men donating blood here despite the prohibition being lifted elsewhere in the UK and an ongoing legal appeal that has cost his department £39,000 so far.

The department - which is under immense financial pressure - has spent that public money on legal costs in relation to the case.

The Department of Health said the costs were made up of £29,200 in charges for barristers, £9,400 in solicitors' costs and £500 in other charges.

In his first interview with the Belfast Telegraph since being appointed Health Minister last September, Mr Wells said he had "huge admiration" for his predecessor Edwin Poots, who launched the appeal.

A ban on gay men donating blood was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales in November 2011. It was replaced by new rules which allow donations from gay men who have not had sexual contact with another man for more than a year.

Mr Poots maintained the prohibition in Northern Ireland on the basis of ensuring public safety.

But earlier this month a court ruled that the ban was "infected by apparent bias".

A judge also backed claims from lawyers for a gay man that Mr Poots' stance was influenced by his Christian beliefs.

The cost to the public purse, which emerged this week, was described as "disgraceful" by Green Party leader Stephen Agnew.

Before leaving the Health Minister role, Mr Poots appealed the ruling, which is due to be heard in the Court of Appeal later this year.

When asked if he was supportive of the ban and the policy remaining in place, Mr Wells said "yes".

"I can't comment at all on the legal proceedings as it is still before the Court of Appeal," he said.

"I have huge admiration for Edwin Poots and I think you'll find that there will not be a lot of difference between myself and Edwin Poots on any of these issues. We are singing off the same hymn sheet, as it were.

"So, therefore, we will continue the policy, but I'm not going to comment on the actual rights and wrongs of it because that might be quoted in a future court case."

He also said the sexuality of Irish Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who became the first Dail minister to declare that he is gay, will not change the professional working relationship he has with him.

"I noted the comment made on RTE at the weekend but that will not change one iota how I deal with Leo. What he announced at the weekend will have no impact on that whatsoever," he said.

‘The sexuality of my Dublin counterpart matters not one iota’

Health Minister Jim Wells tells us of his opinions on gay issues and hospital waiting times

Q. Can I move to something that was reported this week about £40,000 spent on legal costs for defending the ban on gay blood that was started by your predecessor? Is that something that you will continue to pursue or do you think that is enough money spent on this - what is your opinion on this minister?

A. I can't comment at all on the legal proceedings; it is still before the Court of Appeal. I have huge admiration for Edwin Poots and I think you'll find that there will not be a lot of difference between myself and Edwin Poots on any of these issues. We are singing off the same hymnsheet, as it were. So, therefore, we will continue the policy but I'm not going to comment on the actual rights and wrongs of it because that might be quoted in a future court case.

Q. So, is it something that you would support - his step?

A. I support Edwin Poots' views on all of these issues. I promised there would be no great divergence and there won't be between Edwin and myself. I've a lot of admiration for Edwin Poots.

Q. So, just to confirm, you would let this process continue?

A. Let it continue, yes. We can't do very much until we hear the decision.

Q. So whatever the decision you would pursue his policy or what he was agreeing with?

A. I'll be pursuing what Edwin did on this.

Q. You are supportive of that ban?

A. Yes.

Q. Can I ask how you feel about your counterpart in the Republic, Leo Varadkar, coming out as gay - do you feel that was a brave move or do you think it was necessary for him to do that?

A. Leo is the Health Minister of another country and who is appointed Health Minister is entirely within the bailiwick of the Prime Minister/Taoiseach in the Irish Republic. And I don't think it is really my role to make any comment on any personal statement he makes, and the same way I wouldn't expect him to make any comment on any statement I make.

I noted the comment made on RTE at the weekend but that will not change one iota how I deal with Leo. I have to say, to be positive, I think we have had a good few opening months working on issues such as cross-border co-operation. The new radiotherapy in Altnagelvin is making very good progress.

The renal unit at Daisy Hill - 29% of the patients are from the Irish Republic that has gone very smoothly, and I'm very keen to explore the new paediatric congenital heart service in Crumlin, where major surgery will be undertaken for Northern Ireland patients in Dublin.

So, our initial meetings have been positive and I've also been very heartened on his view on minimum unit pricing and tobacco control.

We would seem to have an awful lot in common. So our initial couple of meetings have been very positive. What he announced at the weekend will have no impact on that whatsoever.

Q. So, his sexuality will have no impact on your working relationship with him?

A. No. I mean, I deal with people with all different views on these issues and all sorts of stances. My main aim is to do what is best for the patient in Northern Ireland. I think on many occasions we can work well together as two jurisdictions to benefit everyone. All I want to do is make certain the relationship is balanced.

Q. Are you concerned about being viewed as anti-gay in Northern Ireland?

A. I think you need to distinguish what people would see as anti-gay and people believing in traditional values. I'll make no bones about it: I believe in traditional marriage. I believe in people having children within marriage. I believe in what most people see as traditional relationships. I believe they have to be promoted. But equally our department is providing services for people who don't have that view and quite a large amount of money at times. Nobody ever asks a question about a someone's sexuality when they come to the door of a GP or clinic or hospital. Everyone is treated equally.

Q. But they may view the policy on banning gay blood as an anti-gay stance?

A. All I can say is that the Irish Republic and 21 other western democracies, legislates and Scandinavian countries have the same view and I can't take it any further than that because it is impinging on the court case. I'm in with many, many other countries on this - including the Republic.

Q. There was an expert taskforce set up last year following the RQIA review and the Major Incident (at the Royal Victoria Hospital) to reduce 12-hour waiting times. Has it failed?

A. No, that is where I disagree totally. We did face enormous pressures in January 2014, we had the RQIA taskforce and then the College of Emergency Medicine work and the result of all that was that even though the demand was higher this winter, we reckon 7.5% more people reported needing care in December-early January - an extra 2,000 patients. Despite that we came through this particular period in a much better way than previously and much better than the Irish Republic, who you reported had 600 patients on trolley waits; we had nothing like that.

Q. Would you say to the people who had surgery cancelled that it is acceptable?

A. I would apologise to those 179 people, but what you fail to quote is that is out of 4,600. I'll stand by the decisions of the chief executives in this. I believe it was right.

Q. Michael McBride, the Chief Medical Officer, had to step in as the chief of the Belfast Health Trust...

A. I'm delighted that someone as talented as Michael McBride stepped forward and showed an interest in the post and I think they are already beginning to see the talent. I discovered when I was in the Mater on Monday that Michael McBride on Christmas morning was doing the wards in the Mater and the Royal. No one asked him to do that, but I think it gives and indication about his dedication, rather than sit by the fire with his wife and children and grandchildren, he was out and about.

Q. But why do you think it is that the trust wasn't able to attract someone of Michael McBride's equivalent talent? That indicates there is a problem there.

A. We are constrained by pay policy within the Civil Servant guidelines. We are not in a position to compete with the trusts in England. I don't think we should - but it is a problem. We have lost two high-profile chief executives because of that, and inevitably that trend will continue.

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