Deliberate attempt to lie and conceal the infected blood scandal

Deliberate attempt to lie and conceal the infected blood scandal

Successive governments and the NHS made a deliberate attempt to lie and conceal the infected blood scandal, a report by the official inquiry has stated.

Around 30,000 people became severely ill after being given Factor VIII blood products contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C imported from the US in the 1970s and 80s. Others were exposed to tainted blood through transfusions or after childbirth.

Around 1,250 haemophiliacs and those with similar bleeding disorders were infected with HIV in this scandal, including 380 children. Around three quarters of those died of aids before modern antiretroviral drugs became available.

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Now, on average one person dies every four days, with approximately 3,000 haemophiliacs having died to date.

The government only announced there would be an inquiry when it faced a possible defeat on an emergency motion to establish one. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May ordered it in the summer of 2017.

On Monday, May 20, 2024, inquiry chair Sir Brian Langstaff said the disaster that struck victims of the scandal was “not an accident”.

He said there was a lack of openness, inquiry, accountability and elements of “downright deception”, including destroying documents.

But he preferred to say those in positions of power had been “hiding the truth”, and this included not only deliberate concealment, but also telling half-truths or not telling people what they had a right to know.

He said people were deceived about the risks of the treatment they received, what alternatives were available and, at times, even the fact that they were infected.

He said, “People put their faith in doctors and in the government to keep them safe and their trust was betrayed.”

“Here, the NHS and successive governments compounded the agony by refusing to accept that wrong had been done.

The families affected had been subjected to “a level of suffering which is difficult to comprehend, still less understand,” he added, which was “compounded by the reaction of the government, NHS and other public bodies”.

Affected citizens had their trauma “compounded about a lack of recognition about what happened to them and a lack of accountability”, Sir Brian said.

“The government repeatedly maintained that people received the best available treatment and that testing of blood donations began as soon as the technology was available. Both claims were untrue.”

Other lines repeatedly deployed by successive governments were that infections were inadvertent and that screening Hepatitis C could not have been introduced earlier than September 1991

“All of those claims were untrue,” he said.

The report criticised the decision by successive governments to reject calls for a public inquiry by producing “flawed, incomplete and unfair” internal reports.

He said an “incomplete and misleading picture” of what had happened was published in the early 2000s after a minister sought an investigation as she doubted what civil servants were telling her.

“Documents thought to assist those seeking compensation went missing,” he adds.

“In the case of some documents it is not possible to know how and why they went missing. In others I have concluded they were destroyed in attempt to make the truth more difficult to reveal.”

And the report found that pupils at specialist school Lord Mayor Treloar College were used as “objects for research” in the 1970s and 1980s, while the risks of contracting hepatitis and HIV were ignored.

It found that from 1977, medical research was carried out at Treloar’s in Hampshire “to an extent which appears unparalleled elsewhere”.

The report said more than 50 years of government decision-making showed there had been an “institutional defensiveness” by the NHS and government which has compounded the harms that have been done.

Sir Brian said the delays getting to this point had meant it had been more difficult to get at the truth with key people involved having died or being too frail to give evidence. It also meant it was harder to get access to information and documents than it would have been in earlier years.

His report criticised the failure to make patient safety paramount in decision-making, pointing out that the risk of viral infections being transmitted in blood and blood products had been known about since the start of the NHS in 1948.

But it said that, despite this, people were exposed to “unacceptable risks”.

These included:

  • Not doing enough to stop importing blood products from abroad – which included blood from high-risk donors in the US where prisoners and drug addicts were paid to give blood
  • Continuing to source blood donations from high-risk populations in the UK too such as prisoners until 1986
  • Taking until the end of 1985 to heat-treat blood products to eliminate HIV despite the risks being known since 1982
  • Not introducing as much testing as could have been done to reduce the risk of hepatitis from the 1970s onwards

Victims of the scandal suffered a series of failures by government and the health authorities including:

  • The absence of any meaningful apology and redress
  • The “repeated use” of inaccurate, misleading and defensive lines which “cruelly told people that they had received the best treatment available”
  • A “lack of openness, transparency and candour” from the NHS and government
  • Long delays in providing support payments and a refusal to provide compensation

Sir Brian said it would be “astonishing to anyone who reads this report that these events could have happened in the UK”.

The report states very clearly that there was a cover-up by doctors, the government and the NHS, but who exactly was responsible?

We may never know. The inquiry was not empowered to recommend prosecutions.

But the report made it clear that the infections and deaths of patients were in no way a terrible historical accident.

“I have to report that [the disaster] could largely, though not entirely, have been avoided. And I have to report that it should have been,” he wrote. He described the scale of what happened as “horrifying”.

He said it was “well known” from at least the early 1940s that the hepatitis virus could be transmitted in blood. And – crucially – that it was “apparent” by mid 1982 that whatever was causing Aids might be also be in spread in this way.

Yet the NHS continued to import contaminated treatments from the US.

Infections, leading to deaths, illnesses and suffering were “caused needlessly” to people with haemophilia and other bleeding disorders, added Sir Brian.

He said thousands of NHS patients who needed a blood transfusion were also exposed to hepatitis C partly because there was a sense of “complacency” over the dangers of the virus.

The report says there was an “attitude of denial” about the risks at the time. Instead haemophiliacs were treated with “increasing volumes” of Factor VIII.

Rishi Sunak has offered an apology on behalf of the government for what happened, and promised to deliver details of a compensation scheme on May 21.

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