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23 January 2023

The government is failing Britain over the infected blood scandal

Its refusal to take responsibility for the suffering of tens of thousands of people may come from an anxiety about future legal worries.

By Zoë Grünewald

While the media glare last week was on constitutional gender wars and levelling-up battles, it was also an important one for the infected blood inquiry, a public investigation into what has been called the biggest treatment disaster in history.

During the 1970s and 1980s almost 30,000 people were given blood transfusions or blood products that had been contaminated with Hepatitis C and HIV. So far no one has faced prosecution for the failings and alleged cover-ups that led to the preventable deaths and suffering of so many people. It wasn’t until October 2022 that victims were finally offered compensation of £100,000 each. By the end of that month £400m was paid out, although it was reported at the announcement of the compensation scheme that only one in three families would be eligible for the payment.

The inquiry’s closing statements started on Tuesday 17 January, meaning the investigation has now heard all of the evidence. Its conclusions, to be published later this year, will represent an important milestone for victims and families. What do we know so far?

On Wednesday 18 January, Eleanor Grey KC gave a concluding statement on behalf of the Department for Health and Social Care. Scheduled to have the whole day, Grey spent just half an hour setting out the government’s position, acknowledging there was a “moral case for compensation to be made” and referencing the historical apologies from the government to victims over the past few years. But Grey stopped short of acknowledging specific failings, much to the dismay of those watching. When the chairman of the inquiry, Brian Langstaff, asked, “What was it the department had in mind that [it] was apologising for?”, Grey replied: “We don’t have a position to offer to you on what that might be.”

Victims and impacted families of the infected blood inquiry had hoped Wednesday would offer some closure, but the apology was disappointing. Des Collins, senior partner at Collins Solicitors and adviser to 1,500 victims of the infected blood scandal, called the closing remarks “brief” and “underwhelming”.

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“My clients want and deserve a full and explicit apology and an acknowledgement of what went wrong and when,” he said. “Only by admitting the substance of mistakes can we as a society learn from this tragedy and only by a proper admission of mistakes and accepting responsibility, can those who have suffered achieve any resolution.”

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[See also: How to save the NHS]

Katie Gollop, a lawyer representing the Haemophilia Society, said that there had been “some sort of groupthink amnesia”. Her view, and the view of the victims, is clear: “The fault and the responsibility lie not just with the department she represented, but the whole of the cabinet, from the prime minister down.”

The Labour MP and long-standing advocate for the inquiry Diana Johnson told me she was “totally perplexed” by the government’s position. “In 2018 at the start of the public inquiry, the government apologised for the wrong done to those infected by the contaminated blood scandal. Fast forward to 2023 and they seem unable to explain what the apology was for and what the ‘wrong’ actually was. The government needs to get its act together.”

There are two more weeks of closing statements on behalf of the victims, government and health service. The investigation will then begin to prepare recommendations, which are expected to be damning. The tone of the inquiry has taken some dark turns, with allegations of a cover-up and non-consensual medical testing. The medical records of many victims seemed to have inexplicably gone missing, while others reported that HIV and hepatitis tests were carried out without their knowledge, and that it took years before they were informed of the results. “It’s a very short step from Nuremberg,” Collins warned back in 2019, in reference to the Nazi war crimes tribunals. 

The government’s change of position regarding its level of responsibility perhaps signals a nervousness over future litigation. Hundreds of women have recently launched claims against NHS trusts and surgeons for failing to inform them of the risks of vaginal mesh surgery after suffering permanent injury. And it was revealed last year that thousands of young women in England have been prescribed an epilepsy drug, sodium valproate, that could result in severe birth defects for their children when pregnant. The Sunday Times claimed in an exposé that risks of harm to unborn babies had been known to regulators for years, but had not always been communicated appropriately to patients. Six babies a month are still being born after exposure to sodium valproate.

Calls for the government to respond are growing. On Friday (20 January), the Health and Social Care Committee released a report recommending that ministers act “urgently” to enable women and children avoidably harmed by medical intervention to receive compensation and care, finding that many families have waited far too long for redress. But as Wednesday’s events show, the government is still failing to admit responsibility when it matters.

[See also: Doctors’ union chair: prioritising private healthcare will increase inequalities]

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