In this article I could quite easily write about the momentous events surrounding the Prime Minister’s decision to quit on May 27th, but this has already been splashed across the media, so I decided to focus on something as politically dramatic but more important in human terms.
I refer to those who were infected with haemophilia during the 1970s and 80s from contaminated blood supplies imported from the USA by the Department of Health. The viruses that cause Hepatitis C and Aids were present in blood supplies and it’s thought that 4,670 were affected with Hepatitis C. With 1,200 of those infected with HIV leading to Aids, 800 of those died from Aids and hundreds more have died from Hepatitis C.
The blood was imported because of the lack of blood produced here despite attempts by the then Health Minister Dr David Owen to invest substantial resources in creating a home-based supply. It appears the sum of money allotted was misspent. Screening of the American products was poorly regulated and inappropriately used back then. In fact it turns out that the Department of Health seemed reluctant to insist on best practice.
The entire messy story of this disaster is filled with questions on lack of screening tests, testing patients’ blood samples without consent, documents either going missing or being destroyed, evidence vanishing and the deliberate withholding of results. Sufferers feel that screening tests available in the States were not used here. There was a reluctance to take advantage of these tests by the Department of Health.
Some believe the reason for this procrastination was an unwillingness to provide the cash required. As in all of these decisions over investment in health, a short-term negative decision is generally proved to be more costly and expensive in the long run. There is the smell of a massive cover-up by DoH officials.
There has been a long-standing campaign for an independent public inquiry to expose what happened. Successive governments have resisted this using the excuse that there was no suitable tests at the time and claiming the DoH acted in good faith based on information available. Over 100 MPs demanded such an inquiry.
However, there has been recent progress thanks to the efforts of our own Labour/Co-op peer Lord Morris of Manchester, Britain’s first Minister for the Disabled whose legislation on disability access is copied globally. He is also president of the All Party Group on Haemophilia.
Lord Morris began seeking an experienced lawyer who would be prepared to lead the inquiry. The Government continued to resist one but Lord Morris pursued this relentlessly to offer hope to the sufferers and their families.
Former Solicitor General, Lord Archer of Sandwell QC agreed to take on the role of chairman of the inquiry.
Its remit is to investigate the circumstances surrounding the supply to patients of contaminated blood and the consequences for the haemophilia community and others afflicted and further steps to address both their problems and needs and those of the bereaved families.
The inquiry has begun and hopes to be completed by summer. Every MP will have constituents affected by these infective viral agents.
Let’s recognise this as progress, which may move the Government to accept they were complacent in disregarding warnings they were given at the time and that this whole tragic affair could have been avoided. Surely the time has come for justice for those affected and for their families.
• Jim Dobbin is Labour/Co-op MP for Heywood & Middleton and a former Microbiologist.