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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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.