Objectives To describe the baseline characteristics of SLE patients requiring biologic therapy in the UK and to explore short term efficacy and infection rates associated with rituximab (RTX) use. Methods Patients commencing biologic therapy for refractory SLE and who consented to join BILAG-BR were analysed. Baseline characteristics, disease activity (BILAG 2004/SLEDAI-2K) and rates of infection over follow-up were analysed. Response was defined as loss of all A and B BILAG scores to ⩽ 1 B score with no new A/B scores in other organ systems at 6 months. Results Two hundred and seventy SLE patients commenced biologic therapy from September 2010 to September 2015, most commonly RTX (n = 261). Two hundred and fifty (93%) patients were taking glucocorticoids at baseline at a median [interquartile range (IQR)] oral dose of 10 mg (5–20 mg) daily. Response rates at 6 months were available for 68% of patients. The median (IQR) BILAG score was 15 (10–23) at baseline and 3 (2–12) at 6 months (P < 0.0001). The median (IQR) SLEDAI-2K reduced from 8 (5–12) to 4 (0–7) (P < 0.001). Response was achieved in 49% of patients. There was also a reduction in glucocorticoid use to a median (IQR) dose of 7.5 mg (5–12 mg) at 6 months (P < 0.001). Serious infections occurred in 26 (10%) patients, being more frequent in the first 3 months post-RTX therapy. A higher proportion of early infections were non-respiratory (odds ratio = 1.98, 95% CI: 0.99, 3.9; P = 0.049). Conclusion RTX is safe and is associated with improvement in disease activity in refractory SLE patients with concomitant reductions in glucocorticoid use. Early vigilance for infection post-infusion is important to further improve treatment risks and benefits.