UK contaminated blood scandal: Theresa May orders inquiry

2,400 people died after being infected with hepatitis C and HIV in 1970s and 1980s

The UK government has announced a full inquiry into how thousands of people were infected with hepatitis C and HIV by contaminated blood transfusions, following a long campaign by backbench MPs and pressure groups.

The decision by Downing Street came hours before the government faced possible defeat in a vote on an emergency motion about the need for an inquiry into the scandal, which is believed to have contributed to 2,400 deaths.

Theresa May's spokesman said she and the British health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had told the cabinet on Tuesday that an inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal was required.

Hunt said the UK-wide inquiry would look into the contamination that happened mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, before mass screening of all blood donations was introduced, in 1991.


Hepatitis C in Ireland

The news echoes the Republic of Ireland's hepatitis C scandal: at least 260 people infected with the disease from contaminated blood products supplied by the State have died in the past two decades. They were infected through anti-D immunoglobulin, blood transfusions, blood-clotting factors and treatment for kidney disease.

Giving more details to the House of Commons during the debate on the issue, instigated by the Labour MP Diana Johnson, the health minister Philip Dunne said families would be consulted about what type of inquiry would be best.

The two most likely options were a judge-led statutory inquiry or a Hillsborough-type independent panel, Dunne said, adding that the process would begin as soon as possible.

“Criminal cover-up”

Pressure for an inquiry had grown amid campaigning by Johnson and Andy Burnham, the former Labour MP who is now mayor of Greater Manchester.

In his final speech to the House of Commons in April, Burnham said he had been contacted by victims and families who believed medical records had been falsified to obscure the scandal, saying there was evidence of “a criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”.

Such allegations were key to the government’s decision, Dunne told MPs. “In light of these concerns and reports of new evidence and allegations of potential criminality, we think it is important to understand the extent of what is claimed, and the wider issues that arise,” he said.

If anyone had evidence of criminality they should contact police as soon as possible, Dunne added.

Burnham said the decision to hold an inquiry was “a vindication of all those people who have campaigned bravely throughout the decades, often in the wilderness”. He added: “But this day has taken far too long in coming. People have suffered enough through contaminated blood. They have been let down by all political parties and public bodies.

“It is now incumbent on those organisations to work together to give the families truth, justice and accountability without any further delay or obstruction.”

Democratic Unionists

A big factor in the timing of the announcement was likely to be the emergency debate granted to Johnson by the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

With the leaders of six political parties having signed a letter calling for a public inquiry into the affair, among them the Democratic Unionists, the government faced a likely defeat on a vote on the issue.

Many of those infected by the contaminated blood were people with haemophilia, who need regular transfusion of blood products. During that period many of these were imported from the US, where donors were paid, a practice that increased the risk of unsuitable blood.

Donors in both the US and UK at the time included prisoners, where drug use was an added risk.

Compensation scheme

The leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said there was a need for a “broad, public, inquisitive inquiry”, adding: “2,400 people died as a result of this contaminated blood, and it’s caused unbelievable stress to many, many more people.

“It was obviously a serious systemic failure. I think we need the strongest possible inquiry that can, if necessary, lead to prosecution actions as a result, but above all get to the bottom of it.”

The government has already set up a compensation scheme for those affected. In March it was announced that the scheme could be scaled back because of the number of people developing serious health issues, pushing the programme up to €140 million over budget.

© Guardian