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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.