Scandal has struck the NHS once again. It recently transpired that infected blood had been given to patients in the past. Consequently, an inquiry has been announced by the government in an attempt to analyse what exactly occurred. This inquiry itself relates to blood and blood products provided to patients via the NHS before the year of 1991. The preliminary hearings of the inquiry began in September 2018, with witnesses due to give evidence in April 2019. As a result, it may be worth readers considering the necessary tests if they have received blood or blood products before 1991, for peace of mind. It should be stressed that the incidents prior to 1991 do not have any connection to the way blood is collected and given to patients today. The NHS Blood Donation group have explained that patients should not be concerned in participating in the donation process or receiving a blood transfusion; the process is completely safe as explained by the NHS Blood Donation Service.
At the start of the inquiry, the Department of Health apologised to the victims of the infected blood scandal. The scandal resulted in the deaths of at least 2,944 victims. The incident has been labelled as the 'worst-ever NHS treatment disaster'. Those affected come from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. There have been previous inquiries into the scandal, however this is the first UK-wide public inquiry that can compel witnesses to testify. Understandably, victims of the scandal have been unwilling to come forward owing to the stigma that has been attached to the infections (Hepatitis C and HIV - stories from some victims can be found here) that they now carry. Thankfully, there has been some positive movement in the perception of Hepatitis C and HIV.
Many of those who became infected with Hepatitis C and HIV were seeking blood products in order to assist with the clotting of their blood. The NHS was struggling to keep up with demand for the treatment and made the decision to import supplies from the US. Some of the human blood plasma used to make the product came from donors such as US prison inmates, who sold their blood. One can appreciate that those within the prison system, particularly drug users, are more prone to becoming infected through the use of shared needles. Further, people who underwent blood transfusions were also exposed to contaminated blood. This would have ranged from routine dental treatment through to surgery. There was a change in procedure during the mid-1980s; Blood products started to be heat-treated in order to kill these viruses. By the early 1990s, there were synthetic treatments available for haemophilia. This is significant as it removed the risk of infection for patients.
During the preliminary hearings, letters written by former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major relating to the health disaster were shown to the inquiry. Mrs Thatcher refused to accept that the government had been negligent and stated that any payments to the victims would be unfair to others suffering with disabilities. She went on to refuse a no-fault compensatory scheme. Mr Major wrote that "government money was better spent on patient health care than paying compensation to victims." As a result, Mr Major suggested that victims attempt to make use of "lottery payments" as opposed to compensation for the government. Below are images of the letters from both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. 'The letters appear to acknowledge the issue, which is highly damaging evidence to the past government Questions regarding the lack of action from the government naturally follow from this revelation. This particular evidence was forcefully used by Raymond Bradley, representing the Haemophilia Society at the inquiry. Mr Bradley stated that the letters showed the government had “abdicated its responsibility to do the right thing”. This assertion is quite damning and could potentially fill the general population with unease. This uneasiness is compounded when one considers the significant issues highlighted by Steven Snowden QC. Mr Snowden QC currently represents hundreds of core participants and accused the Cabinet Office and Treasury of conspiring to evade legitimate requests for information. This is despite individuals having the right to freedom of information. If proven, it is clear that the general population’s trust in the executive would diminish spectacularly. The allegation from Mr Snowden QC has been echoed by Aidan O’Neill QC, who also represents a significant number of victims and relatives. Mr O'Neill QC told the inquiry that medical treatment records of many patients had either disappeared or contained false information.
The inquiry comes after decades of campaigning by victims. They allege that the risks were never explained to them and shockingly, the scandal was subsequently covered up. During the first few days of the preliminary hearings, the NHS was urged to test every single person in the UK for Hepatitis C. The reasoning behind this is apparent: to find potentially thousands of unidentified victims of the contaminated blood scandal who are unaware that they are infected.
The inquiry is expected to last over two years. It is clear that this is the very beginning of what one can only imagine is a long journey for the victims of the scandal. One can easily assume the same position as Chair of the Infected Blood Inquiry, retired judge Sir Brian Langstaff. Upon closing the preliminary hearings, Sir Langstaff expressed his sorrow for the victims. Hopefully, the inquiry is successful in terms of giving those patients an opportunity to know the truth about the circumstances of and reasons why they were exposed to contaminated blood products.
Extracts of letter from John Major:
Extracts of letter from Margaret Thatcher: