Don't stop donating blood just because the government's sold the plasma service

The company doesn't have anything to do with UK donor blood.

The UK government has announced that PRUK, the group which handles donations of blood plasma for the NHS, is to be sold to Mitt Romney's former venture capital private-equity firm Bain Capital. The company is paying £90m up front for an 80 per cent stake in the firm, and then a further payment (expected to be worth around £110m) will be made in five years' time. In addition, Bain will be investing an extra £50m in the firm to create a "UK Life Sciences Champion".

The deal is hugely controversial, beyond typical disagreements over privatisation of national assets, because blood transfusions in the UK are voluntary; if donors think that someone is going to make a profit from their donation, they may well not give blood at all.

But they should carry on doing so. Due to fears over vCJD (the human form of mad cow disease), British plasma has not been used for donations for almost two decades. Instead, plasma is imported from the US, and "fractionated" into blood proteins such as immunoglobulins, clotting factors and albumin. That's the job of PRUK, the company which has been sold.

Dr Dan Poulter, the health minister, clarifies:

It is important to be clear about the Government's plans to sell all, or part, of the state-owned plasma company PRUK. This company is completely separate to NHS Blood and Transplant and plays no role in blood donations or organ supply - there is no intention to sell NHS Blood and Transplant. Ministers have made clear the huge debt of gratitude owed to all those who freely donate blood to the NHS.

UK blood donations are not used to make PRUK products. Ever since the emergence of vCJD ("mad cow disease") the medical advice is not to use UK blood in manufacturing for plasma products. PRUK is already a commercial business and the majority of its staff already work in the private sector. We are taking this action to secure a viable future for the company and its employees in the long term and to ensure that patients will continue to have access to high quality medical products.

That doesn't leave the government entirely in the clear, however. Firstly, this exact situation was warned by many before the sale even went ahead. Selling PRUK always carried the risk of negatively affecting donations, and that risk was increased by the shoddy way the Government released the news. Secondly, it merely puts off the problem, because at some point, vCJD restrictions will be lifted. When that happens, people's donated blood will start to be used by the profit-making PRUK.

A bad sale, badly handled, sure. But not a reason to stop giving blood.

A woman donates blood in 1944. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.