The National Blood Authority faced mounting criticism last night over claims that cost-cutting measures have jeopardised the blood supply, forcing hospitals to cancel scores of operations.
An urgent appeal for 5,000 donors was issued yesterday as up to15 per cent of English stocks and up to 33 per cent of Welsh supplies were withdrawn because of fears of bacterial contamination.
The blood, as much as 5,000 pints, was stored in imported bags found to have a faulty, leaking seal, and the problem is believed to be confined to a number of batches of the bags.
However, minutes of National Blood Authority (NBA) chief executives' meetings seen by the Independent show that senior officials had previously expressed concern that the imported bags "do not meet the required standard".
The incident will deepen the crisis at the NBA which is planning to close one-third of its centres around the country with the loss of 700 scientific and technical jobs, with savings of pounds 10m.
The authority contracted with an Australian company, Tuta, last year to supply 20 per cent of the bags it needs, ending the year-long monopoly of Baxter Healthcare, another bag supplier. The deal aimed to reduce costs by about pounds 700,000.
A spokeswoman for the NBA dismissed claims that attempts to save money had resulted in inferior bags being used.
She said that the Tuta bags met all the quality standards demanded by the authority, and had been used in various centres for years.
"There were various initial problems but they were resolved," she said. The faulty seal was the result of a change in production methods by the company in September last year.
Until the problem is solved, the NBA will not use bags produced by Tuta. "We are discussing the problem with the manufacturer. It is the first time this sort of fault has been discovered," the spokeswoman added.
Dr Angela Robinson, medical director of the NBA, said the risk to patients was "extremely low" because bags of blood were stored at a temperature of 4C, at which few bacteria could survive.
"If anyone had received a contaminated blood transfusion they would have had an immediate reaction. No such cases have been reported to us."
Tessa Jowell, Labour's spokeswoman on health, said the incident had destroyed "confidence in the National Blood Authority's ability to run the National Blood Service".
Keith Jerrome, spokesman for the MSF union which represents blood service staff, said that planned closure of five authority centres would result in redundancy for "the very people who diagnosed this danger".
The problem was identified on Wednesday when a staff member at the Oxford Blood Transfusion Service spotted a leaking bag.
The NBA was alerted and by 1.30pm on Thursday the batch numbers of the faulty bags had been identified, and centres ordered to withdraw them.
Oxford, Liverpool, and Wessex are the regions hardest hit by the recall because they take the majority of Tuta bags. A spokesman for the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford said that between 10 and 15 non-urgent operations had been cancelled so far.
Spokesmen for Liverpool and Wessex Blood Transfusion Services confirmed they had advised local hospitals to consider cancelling non-urgent operations up to an including Monday. Emergency donor sessions have been organised for the weekend.
Dr Frank Boulton, medical director of Wessex Blood Transfusion Service in Southampton, said extra supplies had been shipped in from Bristol and Birmingham.
"We have half as much Group O [which can be given to any patient regardless of blood group] tonight as we usually have. But we have enough for the weekend for emergencies and patients with leukaemia."
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