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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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