Northern Ireland will relax rules on blood donations by gay and bisexual men, the health minister said on Wednesday, advancing LGBT+ equality in the socially-conservative region of Britain.
The change follows similar steps taken from Denmark to the United States and comes as some countries face blood shortages caused by COVID-19.
“It is of utmost importance to me that we maintain the safety of blood and I’m confident that the new policy that I am announcing today will do that, while allowing more people to donate,” health minister, Robin Swann, said in a statement.
Swann said men in Northern Ireland would be able to give blood three months after their last gay sexual encounter, down from a year’s wait, in an update to regulations that bring the region into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The new policy was based on expert health advice and will come into force in June.
Rules governing donations by gay men differ globally, with many countries imposing abstinence periods to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
LGBT+ rights campaigners and many health experts say blanket restrictions on men who have sex with men are outdated, unnecessary and discriminatory.
The issue has become a totem of continued stigma against LGBT+ people, with campaigners saying individual assessments of sexual history and risk for all potential blood donors would be safer and fairer.
“It’s a really important step for Northern Ireland to be brought in line with the other regions of the UK,” said Gavin Boyd, policy and advocacy manager at Northern Irish LGBT+ health and wellbeing organisation, the Rainbow Project.
“I would like to celebrate that and recognise that. But obviously it’s not the end of the discussions.”
The change in policy comes after a number of other countries loosened their rules, following vigorous campaigning, and as some countries face low blood supplies under the new coronavirus.
The United States this month announced it was relaxing restrictions in a move largely prompted by concerns over a drop in blood supplies, while France and Denmark have both cut waiting times for gay men to donate in recent months.
-Sonia Elks @soniaelks, Thomson Reuters Foundation