In the 1970s and ’80s, the NHS treated haemophiliacs with contaminated blood-clotting products. The public inquiry into that scandal is only just being set up
In June 2017, Grenfell Tower was engulfed in flames. In May 2018, the public inquiry into the disaster began. It opened with 72 seconds of silence — one for each person that died.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the NHS treated haemophiliacs with contaminated blood-clotting products. More than 4,600 were infected with Hepatitis C and HIV. The public inquiry into that scandal is only just being set up. The silence at the start (if they hold one) will last for 48 minutes.
It’s staggering how long it has taken for the government to grant a public inquiry. Or perhaps it isn’t. For the victims’ testimony (and the evidence they have uncovered) is damning. By 1975 the Department of Health knew that the treatment they were importing from America — made from the blood of “Skid Row derelicts” and prisoners from Arkansas — was likely to give patients hepatitis. By 1983 it knew it could give them Aids.
Yet doctors treated patients without warning them. They tested for infection without telling them. And they took months (or even years) to pass on their test results.
Greg Stokes was told he had Hepatitis C in 2000 though he had tested positive for it in 1998. Joseph Peaty discovered he was HIV-positive from a passing remark by a registrar, two years after he caught it. By the time Stephen Palmer found out, he had already infected his wife. They died within eight days of each other.
In 1975 Dr David Owen, then Health Secretary, urged parliament to make Britain self-sufficient in blood-clotting products. It didn’t happen. In 1983, the government was advised to withdraw American blood products made from blood donated after 1978 from use. The advice was ignored.
The consequences have been horrendous. Hepatitis C has left David Tonkin with crumbled teeth, cirrhosis of the liver, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes and seized-up joints. Aids landed Andrew Evans in hospital in 1993. It was four years before a successful treatment was developed. By then he had missed his GCSEs and A levels, his hipbones had crumbled and he was down to four and a half stone. Joseph Peaty has no muscle cover, is dependent on carers and confined to a wheelchair. He suffers from depression, insomnia, cognitive impairment and hallucinations, and has just undergone chemotherapy for bladder cancer.
For decades, families have sought justice. At every turn, they have encountered obstacles. Medical records have allegedly been destroyed or gone missing. Some have been tampered with. David Owen’s private office papers have been pulped.
In April 2017, outgoing Labour MP Andy Burnham told the House of Commons he would go to the police if the government didn’t hold a public inquiry into this “criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”. The government conceded in July. Sir Brian Langstaffe, the inquiry chair, took up his position this past May.
More than 2,883 haemophiliacs have now died and each month the death toll rises. The victims have waited over 30 years for this inquiry. Let’s hope they get some answers.