Sources say hospitals have had a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy over practitioners who have HIV

The automatic ban on doctors and dentists with HIV carrying out procedures that might potentially lead to blood contamination could soon be lifted, the Department of Health is to announce.

The Independent has learned that ministers are planning to launch a consultation later this year to examine whether it is justified to keep the 20-year-old prohibition in place. It comes after a study of the evidence presented to the Chief Medical Officer concluded that the risk of transfer during any medical procedure was now negligible.

Anti-retroviral medication can effectively control HIV, so that patients with HIV display levels of the infective particle in their blood that are too low even to measure.

This, combined with the high levels of infection control that are demanded of medical professionals, means that much of Europe along with Australia and America have removed the restriction.

Sources in the medical profession say that even in Britain, where the ban is still in place, hospitals and dental surgeries have long operated a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with regard to practitioners who have HIV. They argue the policy is now clearly discriminatory as it can no longer be justified on public health grounds – despite the emotive nature of HIV.

The Department of Health is understood to be concerned that any proposal to lift the ban is carried out with "sensitivity" to public opinion.

They intend to launch a consultation before Christmas to get views from across the medical and dentistry professions as well as experts and members of the public. A final decision is likely to be taken later next year.

The decision to launch the review comes after the Department of Health's Expert working group on AIDS and the UK Advisory Panel for Healthcare Workers Infected with Blood-borne Viruses both concluded that the risks could not justify the ban.

They are believed to have told the Chief Medical Officer that the likelihood of any infection was as low as one case every 2,400 years.