Campaigners for gay rights hailed the removal of the lifetime ban on gay blood donors yesterday but attacked the "disproportionate" 12-month restriction on those who are sexually active.
Stonewall, the pressure group for gays and lesbians, said the new rule discriminated against gay men who engaged in low-risk sexual activity. It called for the same rules to apply to all blood donors irrespective of their sexual orientation. Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, said the 12-month restriction was "excessive and unjustified" although a "big improvement" on the existing rule.
The Department of Health said the lifetime ban on men who have ever had sex with men, which has been in place since the 1980s, would be lifted on 7 November. It followed a review by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissue and Organs which said the lifetime ban should be reduced to one year for men who had had oral or anal sex with another man within the past 12 months. The committee said the change would not increase the risk of transmission of HIV which can now be picked up sooner after infection with more sensitive tests, but there was a higher incidence of hepatitis B in gay men and this could remain undetectable for several months.
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, said a gay man in a monogamous relationship who only had oral sex would still be unable to give blood under the new rules – while a heterosexual man with multiple partners who did not use condoms would not be questioned about his behaviour. Even if he was, he would not be excluded from donating. "We recognise this move as a step in the right direction," he said. "However, Stonewall will continue to push for a donation system based on the real risks. People wanting to donate blood should be asked similar questions irrespective of their sexual orientation."
Andy Wasley, editor in chief of So So Gay magazine, called for hepatitis B to be included in the national vaccination programme, as in most countries in Europe, and for "more precise selection criteria" to be used in identifying high-risk potential donors.
The Advisory Committee said the Equality Act 2010 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, except where refusal of a blood donor was "reasonable". Research published in the British Medical Journal showed that one in 10 gay men had given blood in defiance of the lifetime ban.
Case study: Total equality will take 10 more years
Jonathan Mundy, 32, is an engineer living in London
"Heterosexual men can get an STI just as easily so I don't see why there should be a distinction. I also don't think this change goes far enough.
I think the authorities have just bowed to pressure and given a small concession. I think it's just a way of keeping people quiet and that, despite having a real opportunity to make a difference, we have this ambiguous rule.
I don't see what difference this arbitrary time period will make. I could not have sex for six months and know that I'm clean yet were I to give blood it would be me who has to answer questions.
I also think it is unlikely that that many people will go for 12 months without sex. The whole time period element should be scrapped but I'm not very hopeful. I think it will take another 10 years at least before there is total equality."