I recently read a newspaper article that discussed whether human nature, when unchecked, is selfish and greedy, or caring and altruistic. This is not a simple argument. One could say that it depends on the circumstances, or that it depends on culture. People could in one situation be very selfish, but in another quite self-sacrificing in their care for people close to them or who are in need. What is clear is that there are vast numbers of people who devote their time to the service of others who are not close to them, indeed may be unknown to them, where the question of being paid for their effort doesn’t come into it. Perhaps they are in a secure position financially, or perhaps they’re not, but still give what time they have freely. Given the diversity of our lives, there will be many different situations in between. One such group of volunteers are the blood bikers.
The blood bikers are a band of motorbike riders who give up their time to courier medical supplies around the country, and in doing so save the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds. Their name might sound a bit ominous, but the mission of this 1,500-strong gang is deadly serious. They are men and women all over Britain who dedicate a few evenings a week to deliver supplies to hospitals across the country as stand-ins for the daytime professionals. In 2013 they responded to around 35,000 urgent requests from hospitals, delivering everything from blood and platelets to medicine and breast milk, essentially anything you can get on the back of a bike. The volunteers have their own organisation, the Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes (NABB)
The idea of rapid response motorcycle based charity, run by unpaid volunteers, goes back over half a century when a group was formed in London. The NABB was formed in 2010, and has been involved in setting up numerous independent regional groups, of which there are now 25, and the aim is to provide a coast-to-coast service across the UK. The volunteers have to work to professional standards and comply with a variety of regulations. Some of the bikers are retired, most of them are in full-time jobs. Most of all they are from all walks of life. More than a few of the bikers have given three decades of service to the NHS.
During 2013, the bikers responded to requests from 262 hospitals, for urgent transport of whole blood cells, platelets, plasma, serum, surgical instruments, patient notes, X-rays, human donor milk, and MRI scans. Requests to one of the two or three bikers on duty within a local area, usually come via telephone texts like ‘Urgent blood sample from Peterborough to Birmingham’. It may be that the blood has to go to a specialist testing laboratory with the results required for a patient early the next morning. Within minutes the biker is on their bike, riding off into the night to the pick up point. At the pick-up point a technician on night duty hands over a specially sealed sample box, the biker hands over a receipt, and the package is secured in one of the bike’s panniers. At the destination, a theatre technician in their scrubs may be waiting at reception to take the package. Then they vanish back inside.
The biker service is organised into regional groups, so if it is a long journey, the trip is done in relays and the biker passes the package over to another biker at a midway point. The work of each group is co-ordinated by a controller, very often from the living room of the volunteer. Controllers start duty at 7pm and work till 7am throughout the week, as well as on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and bank holidays. If the control gets a run of calls, bikers may have to make two or more journeys in a night, and might not get home until 5am. Controllers wait for a text from their riders to tell them they’ve made it home safely.
Some requests are classed as Priority 1, that is life threatening emergencies, and obviously motorbikes can get through traffic much more easily than cars or vans. But despite the urgency, and the bikes being provided with blue lights and sirens, the bikers have to stick to the speed limit and stop at every red light. The intelligence services, bomb disposal units and the coastguard operate also have to operate similarly. As a result, the blue lights are of limited use, as there are no exceptions. It would be confusing for the public to see the lights used differently. This may be change though as in 2013 the government issued a consultation paper on allowing the blood bikers the wider exemptions allowed to the ambulance, fire and rescue, and police services, subject to the appropriate training. The Department for Transport has recently announced that the regulations will be changed accordingly next year.
One reason why the bikers look set to be given the same exemptions as the other emergency services is the ‘golden-hour response’ sought by the NHS Blood and Transplant service. This refers to the treatment of a patient in the vital period immediately after an accident. This means that one of the bikers is able to get to any hospital in their patch within the hour in order to transport organ tissue samples to another location.
It is likely that the natural camaraderie that exists between motorcyclists plays its part in the commitment that keeps the volunteers going, but the vital nature of their work must be the major factor even though the bikers will rarely know what became of the samples they deliver around the country. The blood bikers are one of Britain’s best kept secrets.