NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) has issued its first-ever Yellow Alert as blood supplies have fallen to critically low levels.
Hospitals have been ordered to implement plans to protect their stocks, meaning non-urgent surgeries requiring blood could be postponed to ensure they are prioritized for patients who need them most.
A spokeswoman for NHSBT said current NHS total blood stocks are at 3.1 days, but levels for type O blood have fallen to under two days.
O negative blood is the universal blood type that can be given to anyone.
It is vital in emergencies and when the recipient’s blood type is unknown.
Existing O-negative and O-positive donors are now being asked to register at blood centers to donate blood, although all donors are encouraged to donate if they can.
When the news of the yellow alert broke, the blood donor website became very busy with people queuing.
About one in seven people has O-negative blood.
Air ambulances and rescue vehicles carry O-negative supplies for emergencies.
The current Yellow Alert is due to ongoing staffing issues as more staff are needed to work at donor meetings.
According to the NHSBT, maintaining blood supplies has been a constant challenge in the wake of the Covid pandemic, largely due to staff shortages and illness, but also because people are visiting city collection points less frequently.
Measures currently being taken to address the problem include moving more staff to the front lines to fill more positions, accelerating hiring to fill vacancies and using temporary workers and retaining existing workers.
Blood can only be stored for 35 days, which means a constant need for donations – and a need for specific blood types.
The yellow alert will initially last four weeks, which the NHSBT says should allow blood supplies to rebuild.
It aims to stock blood for more than six days, but levels are currently predicted to fall below two days – hence the warning.
Wendy Clark, interim chief executive of NHSBT, said: “Asking hospitals to limit their blood use is not a step we take lightly. This is a vital measure to protect patients who need blood most.
“Patients are our focus. I sincerely apologize to the patients whose surgery may be postponed for this reason.
“With the support of hospitals and the actions we are taking to increase collection capacity, we hope to be able to rebuild stocks on a more sustainable basis.
“We cannot do this without our amazing donors. In particular, if you are O-positive or O-negative, please make an appointment to have your blood drawn as soon as possible. If you already have an appointment, please keep it.”
Professor Cheng-Hock Toh, Chairman of the National Committee on Blood Transfusion, said: “I know that all hospital transfusion services across the country are working flat out to ensure blood is available for emergencies and urgent surgeries.
“We will continue to work closely and cooperatively with NHSBT and in particular with surgeons and anesthesiologists to minimize patient discomfort and problems.”