Hospitals rationed as blood stocks hit new low

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The National Blood Authority has been forced to ration blood supplies to hospitals after stocks fell to a record low.

A national advertising campaign for donors has been extended by a week and extra donor sessions laid on after stocks in England and Wales sank to less than half the level normally aimed for.

Private hospitals were warned that their orders might not be met and one NHS hospital, the Queen Elizabeth in Gateshead, is to have a staff donor session to boost levels.

Sue Cunningham, manager of the National Blood Authority (NBA), urged donors to keep appointments but denied there was a crisis.

A unit of blood is the treated pint taken from a donor and the authority has previously stated it would be unhappy if stocks went below 15,000. They have barely risen above this target since the second week of December, and on Monday stood at just over 8,900 units.

Mrs Cunningham said, however, it was now clear that they could survive on less than previously believed and no operations had been cancelled because of shortages.

A system introduced last year to control stock movement enabled the authority to work more efficiently, she said.

Mrs Cunningham's revised view of the minimum safe level of stocks was immediately challenged by doctors and transfusion service staff.

Dr Paul Stevenson, a consultant haematologist in Liverpool, said it was "rubbish". One or two patients bleeding acutely could use up the whole of available stocks of O rhesus positive, the most common and useful blood group, within 15 minutes. "It's a crazy thing to say. I would have cancelled some of the routine surgery here on Monday morning if I'd known stocks were that low."

Dr Colin Entwistle, recently retired head of the Oxford transfusion service, said: "They have got away with it so far, but it's not going to take much to rock the boat. They're working on a wing and a prayer."

A spokesman for the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, in London, said they had received only half the stocks of group O blood they had requested yesterday. "If the situation continues, it will be a problem."

Mark Purcell, of the Mid Essex Health Trust, said: "If this continues and becomes a trend rather than a blip it will create enormous problems. We are under pressure to reduce waiting times for operations. If there's no blood, [our plans] will go completely out of the window."

Dr John Foster, scientific director for the 35 private Nuffield Hospitals, said they took blood supplies from the NBA and had been warned that stocks were low and that there might be problems in the Wessex and London areas. "Obviously, we try to keep our planned cases because it is bad for business. In theory, we may have to cancel surgery, but we can move blood from one hospital to another."

Letters, page 14

Troubled times, Section Two