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NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) has declared its first ever amber alert, as it said its blood supplies have dropped to a level far below what was needed for the health service. Health workers are now being asked to limit the amount they use.
In particular, there is a more severe shortage of blood type O stocks, and existing donors are being asked to book in donation sessions.
The plans to protect supplies implemented mean non-urgent hospital procedures that require blood could be postponed to ensure there is adequate supply.
This means those who have already faced a massive wait for elective surgery on the post-pandemic NHS backlog could face an even longer wait.
A spokesperson for NHSBT said current overall blood stocks stand at 3.1 days, but that levels of O-type blood had fallen to below two days.
O negative blood is the universal blood type which can be given to everyone.
It is vitally important during emergencies and when the blood type of the recipient is unknown.
Blood is only kept by the NHS for 35 days before it is thrown away; the typical longest shelf-life is 42 days. NHSBT says platelet cells are only kept for five days.
This means that the health service needs a constant supply of blood, and a supply of different types of blood.
Wendy Clark, the interim chief executive of NHSBT, said: “Asking hospitals to limit their use of blood is not a step we take lightly. This is a vital measure to protect patients who need blood the most.
“Patients are our focus. I sincerely apologise to those patients who may see their surgery postponed because of this.
“With the support of hospitals and the measures we are taking to scale up collection capacity, we hope to be able to build stocks back to a more sustainable footing.”
The amber alert will last initially for a four-week period, which NHSBT said should enable blood stocks to be rebuilt.
It aims to hold more than six days of blood in stock. However, overall levels are currently predicted to fall below two days – hence the alert.
Were blood stocks to fall below two days, NHSBT may be forced to issue a red alert, which would see “severe, prolonged shortages”.
If that were to happen, blood usage would be largely limited to necessary operations and emergencies.
Although blood stocks are very low for blood group O, the other blood groups are expected to enter amber levels in the next few weeks.
Around one in seven people have O negative blood, but anyone can receive the red blood cells. Air ambulances and emergency response vehicles carry O negative supplies for emergencies.
The current amber alert is due in part to the concurrent workforce shortage the NHS is facing, with more staff needed to work donor sessions.
NHSBT said that maintaining its stocks after Covid had been an ongoing challenge, also because people were less likely to visit collection centres in town.
It is now moving more staff to the front line to open more appointments up, as well as expediting recruitment and utilising agency staff, as it calls for donors to come forward.
As news of the amber alert broke, NHSBT recorded a spike in calls and a rise in traffic to its website to sign up to donate.
Ms Clark commented: “We cannot do this without our amazing donors. If you are O positive or O negative in particular, please make an appointment to give blood as soon as you can.”
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