Blood service crisis as staff exodus bites

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The threat of closure hanging over a third of Britain's blood transfusion centres has caused a massive exodus of qualified staff, bringing the service close to breaking point.

The Independent has discovered that Lancaster has lost three-fifths of its qualified personnel, Liverpool one-third - including a senior scientific officer who left for a job in Switzerland - and Brentwood in Essex has lost two-fifths of staff, since the closure proposals were announced. Attracting qualified replacements is proving difficult.

While all the staff emphasised that professional pride ensured blood was safe, many claimed the system was "showing signs of stress".

The findings emerge as the National Blood Authority came under fire yesterday for exporting factor eight, a vital blood by-product, despite fears that making money from donors might jeopardise their good will.

Radical reforms to the blood transfusion service were recommended in September last year in an independent consultants' report aimed at trimming pounds 10m from its pounds 135m annual budget.

After consultation, the National Blood Authority, which runs the service, handed proposals to the Government suggesting closing a third of the 15 regional centres.

But a decision has been continually delayed amid a series of embarrassments including the faulty Tuta bag scandal and a row over proposed sponsorship by Ribena and McVitie's. Staff claim the uncertainty has created a form of "planner's blight". One insider said: "Unless all your staff have sufficient knowledge, there must be a risk of the systems falling apart. Unqualified staff have to work mechanically. Things are beginning to slow down."

John Simmons, of the union Manufacturing Science Finance, said: "The problems are all over the country. They're having difficulties in Leeds and recruitment in Newcastle is pretty grim. Southampton and Cambridge are similar." Yet closure would save comparatively little money, he claimed. The bulk of the annual budget goes on blood collection, not the centres' work of testing and processing.

At Lancaster, a quality audit was undertaken on Thursday and Friday because of fears over the impact of the exodus of about 25 out of 40 staff. A senior scientist, Ivor Thompson, said: "Everything is more difficult because we've got less experienced people who require more supervision. People are pulling out all the stops to try to keep things running safely."

Andy Ford, the MSF representative in Liverpool, said: "It's just on the edge of a very severe crisis." He claimed only high unemployment in the city enabled them to attract graduates as replacement staff, but they needed two years to train.

Oxford lost its quality assurance manager in February.He was not replaced due to an embargo on recruiting senior staff.

In Brentwood, Essex, a laboratory worker said: "The qualified staff are working too fast and the new people miss things. It is not endangering patients, but it's impairing efficiency."

A National Blood Authority spokesman denied there was a national problem. "The number of staff leaving has increased but we're seeking to make sure that the service and the product is not affected by that."