Authority struggles to repair tarnished image

The national blood service has had a calamitous time. Celia Hall reports
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The Independent Online
It is 15 months since the nation's blood supply came under the organisation of a single authority. During this time the reputation of a proud British institution with its thousands of voluntary donors, has disintegrated.

The new management is blamed. The revelation yesterday that a new computer system designed to streamline the service is late and "shows classic signs of being a runaway disaster" is only the latest in a succession of well- publicised calamities to afflict the service since the National Blood Authority took over in April 1994.

Only three-and-a-half weeks ago 5,000 "pints" of blood were withdrawn when batches of the blood bags were found to have a faulty seal. But the situation was far from contained by this drastic action and its associated emergency appeal for donors. Within days, a man in a Swindon hospital had developed septicaemia and one of the faulty bags was implicated.

In the meantime, the authority had been in discussion with the bags' manufacturers, Tuta, in Australia. It decided that 7,000 blood units must be withdrawn since the fault was sporadic and not associated with bag batches. This amounted to 20 per cent of the blood stock of England and Wales.

This summer's disasters come at the finale of an agonising process of rationalising the supply of blood.

The NBA was formed to give a single authority power over the regional centres. The first major task was a strategic review. The proposals, which sparked controversy, are with the Secretary of State for Health.

Under the former regionally organised system there are 13 major and two minor centres where blood is collected and tested. The plan is to close five, in Oxford, Liverpool, Lancaster, Brentwood and Plymouth. Staff fear job losses. Local directors feel that chaos threatens. The authority argues that these are not "closures"; that the 400 anticipated job losses will be largely taken up by natural wastage. The move will save pounds 10m on the pounds 135m budget.

However, demand for blood is growing by 4 per cent a year. The fear is that the errors and changes will continue to expose the authority to bad publicity. Blood donors will be discouraged. The country's free supply of 5.28 million litres of blood will start to dry up.