in the back
Justice delayed 30 years and counting
NHS blood scandal, Issue 1449
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BLOODY CHEEK: Health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said the government was ‘proud of our record in support of those who suffered this injustice’
THE death toll of haemophiliacs from Aids stood at 23 when the Eye reported in 1987 that the then Tory government was, despite repeated warnings, still importing cheap blood products harvested from paid prisoners, drug addicts and “skid row” donors in the US. It has taken another 30 years, and the deaths of nearly 2,500 haemophiliacs from both HIV and hepatitis C, plus an unknown number of blood transfusion recipients, before this government has finally ordered a public inquiry into the NHS’s biggest disaster.

If the inquiry starts promptly it may not be too late for the surviving 2,200 haemophiliacs sentenced to illnesses such as liver cancer and cirrhosis, whose lives and careers have been ruined, and whose family members may have been infected or turned into full-time carers. And all because successive governments refused to fund safe production of blood-clotting products in the UK.

Yet campaigners have already hit a barrier. The inquiry is being organised by the Department of Health (DoH) – the very ministry they hold responsible for the scandal, which continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and for the ensuing cover-ups, document shredding and miserly “sympathy” and “ex-gratia” payments they have been forced to exist on ever since.

‘Meaningful compensation’
While other countries accepted fault, brought prosecutions and paid meaningful compensation many years ago, the UK cynically forced unwitting HIV victims receiving a “compassion payment” of between £20,000 and £60,000 to sign a legal waiver of rights to any more funds should they contract another infection. Health officials, of course, knew many had already contracted hep C when they made them sign.

Hardly surprising, then, that given less than 48 hours’ warning last week of a meeting with DoH officials to discuss the forthcoming inquiry, those campaigners, including Tainted Blood and the Haemophilia Society, united to politely tell the department to back off. Not only had the DoH invitations been selective, excluding some campaign groups and supportive MPs, but also victims are adamant that department officials cannot play any part in deciding the remit and powers of an inquiry – which will, in effect, be investigating its own staff, NHS medics and blood services, not to mention successive ministers, both Labour and Tory.

A complete Hunt
Campaigners were equally outraged when, announcing the inquiry, health secretary Jeremy Hunt repeated claims that an extra £125m was being made available “for those who need it” and boasted that the government could be “proud of our record in support of those who suffered from this injustice to date, both financially and in the search for the truth”.

In an attempt to stave off a high court discrimination action only four months ago, Hunt announced that he would have to cut proposed increases in payments to those with HIV, advanced hep C, or both, in order to better help those with first-stage chronic hep C – robbing one set of tainted blood victims to pay another. As for the extra £125m, most is already accounted for in the NHS budget for new effective drug treatment for hep C sufferers.

With no trust in Hunt or his department, campaigners want responsibility for the inquiry moved to the Cabinet Office or Ministry of Justice. The Eye, like other news outlets, has long chronicled the battles of haemophiliacs to secure a government-funded inquiry as evidence of the dangers emerged - and were ignored - in the 1970s.

The first blood-clotting products were produced in 1966, and from the 1970s onwards the UK imported huge quantities from the US. In 1974, the World Health Organisation warned Britain not to import blood from countries with a high prevalence of hepatitis, such as the US. It was also known in the 1970s that the risks of potential contamination were higher as “skid row” donors were paid to donate – as ITV’s World in Action revealed in 1975.

Human guinea pigs
Warnings about HIV followed. In 1982, the first UK haemophilia patient was given a diagnosis of Aids. In 1983, Dr N Galbraith of the Public Health Laboratory Service wrote to Dr Ian Field at the Department of Health: "I have reviewed the literature and come to the conclusion that all blood products made from blood donated in the USA after 1978 should be withdrawn from use until the risk of Aids transmission by these products has been clarified.”

A department letter the same month concludes that the suggestion “is premature in relation to the evidence and unbalanced in that it does not take into account the risks to haemophiliacs of withdrawing a major source of their factor VIII supplies”. No restriction was placed on imported concentrates, except on those for children under the age of four and for people with mild haemophilia.

In 1991, as hepatitis C was identified, many patients were wrongly told it was “much less serious” than hepatitis B. And still no public inquiry took place – even as evidence emerged of the secret use of previously untreated “human guinea pigs”, some of them children, to test the developing blood-clotting products; of further secret monitoring for disease and the failure to inform patients of the results, putting families and others at risk; of documents being destroyed and medical records tampered with.

Much was exposed by a 2009 independent inquiry led by Lord Archer – set up despite government, not because of it, and funded by charities and donors. But it was hampered by having no legal status or power to subpoena witnesses or demand disclosure documents. Ultimately, it pulled its punches: even though it had graphically illustrated long-term systemic blood policy failures, the inquiry still found no one accountable.

Deadly cocktail
Nor did it address more recent scandals. Why, for example, in early 2000, when safe but more expensive synthetic clotting agents were given to children, were they not also made available to adults? Thus some haemophiliacs, already given a deadly cocktail of viruses, found they had been given products that may contain the fatal neurodegenerative variant CJD.

The £12m Penrose inquiry in Scotland, six years later, was met with claims of a “whitewash” by campaigners. While acknowledging the impact on victims’ lives, and making it more difficult to excuse the complex and derisory payments systems, Penrose unbelievably concluded that little could have been done differently.

The truth is that successive governments have united to collectively deny responsibility and decent compensation for the contaminated blood victims. But the campaign has recently gained new momentum.

The Haemophilia Society, once muted in its criticisms of government because of its “unwitting promotion” and assurance even in the 1980s of the safety of the blood clotting agent, has now apologised to victims and added its voice to demands for an inquiry. A Panorama documentary included the plight of children infected at a residential school for haemophiliacs. Andy Burnham, who did nothing while he was Labour’s health secretary, used his last Commons speech as an MP to demand an inquiry into the “criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”. And finally the leaders of all opposition parties – including prime minister Theresa May’s new chums in the DUP – combined to demand a Hillsborough-style inquiry.

As Andrew Evans of Tainted Blood pointed out, the death toll and scale of injury dwarfs that of other recent UK disasters where there have been full criminal or public inquiries, including the Lockerbie bombing. “Had haemophiliacs all died on one day, there would have been an immediate investigation and we would never have endured this silent scandal,” he said. Finally, they will endure it no more.

More top stories in the latest issue:

CARE HOMES: ALL AT SHC…
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DRAY OF RECKONING
Heineken, which owns about 1,100 leased pubs in Britain, is tipped to take over 1,900 boozers from notorious Punch Taverns – but it may be a poisoned pint glass.

DEEPCUT INQUESTS
Permission has been given for the family of Geoff Grey, the third of four recruits found dead with gunshot wounds at Deepcut barracks, to seek a new inquest.

STRIKING FAILURES
Six years after student Jagdip Randhawa was fatally attacked by a boxer on bail for violent assault, Derbyshire police is condemned for failing to manage the boxer’s breaches of bail conditions.

STRIPPED TEES
Teesside University gets the summer break under way by launching a career-threatening ‘review’ of its star researchers, making them re-apply for their jobs.

RENEWABLES: A DIRTY BUSINESS
Meet the self-styled hippies who supply green electricity but are in fact wealthy, steely-eyed businesspeople with their knives deep in each other’s backs.

HIGH SPEND RAIL
The KPMG beancounter whose job is to oversee the spending of taxpayer pounds on the highly questionable £56bn HS2 rail contract.

SHELL COMPANIES
Lord (David) Prior, business minister with an anti-corruption brief, has personal experience of his own dealing with a secretive offshore shell company.

BAIL-OUT CONDITIONS
The government gave private companies running probation services a £22m bail-out at the end of May, without announcing the extra payments.

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Private Eye Issue 1448