Blood donation is to be made more inclusive with the removal of a question branded “outdated, unnecessary and actively discriminatory”.
It is hoped the change will make it easier for black African donors in particular to give blood.
Potential donors in England will, by the end of this year, no longer be asked a question which created “unease” in particular among the black African community.
The question, currently part of the donor safety check, asks people if they have recently had sex with a partner who may ever have been sexually active in an area where HIV is endemic, which includes most of sub-Saharan Africa.
Those who answer yes are deferred for three months after the last sexual contact with that partner, and the consequence has often been that some black African donors and other potential donors in long-term relationships have been unable to donate blood.
The Department of Health said the decision to remove the question, taken following research by the Fair (For the Assessment of Individualised Risk) steering group and supported by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (Sabto), will not compromise the safety of blood supply in the UK.
The donor form will continue to contain other questions aimed at picking up individual, high-risk behaviours, including recent travel to countries where HIV is endemic, the department added.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid hailed the change as “another progressive step forward, focusing on individual behaviours, rather than blanket deferrals, and reducing limitations for people to donate blood”.
He added: “This will make it easier for black donors in particular to donate blood, ultimately saving lives.
“We are creating a fairer system for blood donation. And, as we recover from this pandemic, we are committed to levelling up society, which includes improving access to services for everyone.”
The Health Department said the change will also give more opportunities for people to donate rarer blood types, as people who are black African, black Caribbean and of black mixed ethnicity are more likely to have the rare blood sub-group, such as Ro, that many black sickle cell patients need.
Sabto chairman Professor James Neuberger described the move as “a positive step towards equality, informed by evidence, helping to create a fairer system for blood donors without affecting the safety of the blood supply”.
Su Brailsford, associate medical director at NHS Blood and Transplant and chairwoman of Fair, said it is hoped the change will “remove the unease long felt by some donors about this – in particular the black African community whose needs we are working hard to listen to and better address, those of African heritage, and their partners, who are all disproportionately affected”.
Deborah Gold, chief executive of the National Aids Trust, said: “We are delighted that the Secretary of State has confirmed this outdated, unnecessary and actively discriminatory question will be removed from blood donor screening forms.
“The science is clear that this is unnecessary and does nothing to improve safety. Instead, it actively prevents much-needed donors coming forward to give blood, particularly from black communities.”
The change will be reviewed after a year, by the Fair steering group and Sabto.
The Department of Health said all donations in the UK are tested for numerous possible infections, including HIV, and there are “robust monitoring mechanisms” in place to ensure safety.
The risk of an HIV infectious donation not being detected is estimated to be around one in 23 million, the department added.