Blood stocks plummet to a new low

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Blood stocks in England and Wales have fallen to 20 per cent below the minimum level set by the transfusion service last year.

Managers have blamed the flu epidemic and normal Christmas lull in donations. But some staff and donors believe recent controversies have prompted many donors to stop giving. They also suspect managers failed to organise supplies quickly enough.

Yesterday, stocks stood at just over 12,000 units, compared with 15,000 which blood transfusion service officials have told staff they would be unhappy to fall beneath. A unit is the treated product from a pint of blood taken from a donor

Dr Colin Entwistle, the recently retired medical director of the Oxford Blood Transfusion Centre, said: "I think they are sailing horribly close to the wind for comfort, leaving very little room for the unexpected. This is a service where you cannot safely take the risk of running out."

A blood service insider said some areas were "dangerously low". Yesterday the Liverpool centre held about 530 units compared with some 2,000 during September and October. "A severe road traffic accident can use 90 units, or hundreds of them if it's really bad. It is absolutely diabolical."

As early as 11 December, Austin Gray, chief executive of the National Blood Authority's western zone, covering Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford and Wessex, warned that its efforts to maintain levels were "still proving to be inadequate... Clearly the national picture on blood stocks is giving grave cause for concern."

Supplies in blood transfusion centres dropped below the 15,000-unit level - a day and a half's supplies - on 14 out of 19 occasions when statistics were collated in December.

When there was concern over faulty blood bags in June, the service had 14,251 units in stock, not enough to allow National Blood Authority (NBA) managers to withdraw all the suspect bags straight away.

One insider said: "The NBA are on the record as having stated at the beginning of 1995 that they would aim in general for a stock of around 20,000 units and would not be happy if it went below 15,000 units."

Sue Kilroe, of the Merseyside and North Wales Donors and Patients Association, said a shake-up of the service, which will downgrade some centres including Liverpool, had angered donors. They had also been upset by proposals to consider commercial sponsorship and by reports in the Independent that surplus blood products were being sold abroad at a profit.

"The NBA has said the low stocks are down to flu and Christmas, but the people I've spoken to are just not giving because they are so annoyed."

The National Blood Authority yesterday urged donors to keep appointments but said there was no need for alarm.

"The first two weeks of January are notoriously the lowest stock levels of the year. We're collecting what we're being asked for by the hospitals."

Yesterday, the separate Scottish blood service had three days' supplies instead of the four or five it prefers to stock, and was also appealing for donors.