Contaminated blood scandal an 'industrial-scale cover-up'

Former Health Secretary Andy Burnham has called for a fresh inquiry into the NHS’ use of contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the time, some supplies of a clotting agent, known as Factor VIII, imported into the UK, were later found to have been infected with Hepatitis C and HIV.

Made from plasma extracted from donated blood, Factor VIII is used to treat haemophiliacs, to replace the clotting factor missing from their blood. Some of the plasma used in the imported Factor VIII came from individuals, such as US prison inmates, who had sold their blood.

It is understood that around 7,500 patients were infected with Hepatitis C and HIV by the imported blood products and more than 2,000 of these people subsequently died as a result of the alleged medical negligence.

Calls for a new inquiry

In calling for a new inquiry, Mr Burnham accused the government of an industrial scale cover-up into the scandal and cited two documents that demonstrated the government’s negligence in allowing the contaminated blood to be used.

The first was a letter from Stanford University, California, one of the world’s leading research universities, to the then UK government-owned blood products laboratory in 1975. Stanford’s medical centre warned of the blood being “100% sourced from skid row derelicts”. 

Mr Burnham also spoke about a document sent in 1982 from the Oxford Haemophilia Centre to all haemophilia centre directors in England, which told them that new products coming onto the market had only been tested for infectivity on chimpanzees, and that even this level of quality control could not be guaranteed for all future batches. 

The Oxford document carried on to recommend the administration of the new products to patients requiring treatment, so that the infectivity of the various concentrates could be studied in humans; in effect making ‘guinea pigs’ of the patients.

In his speech, Mr Burnham outlined other evidence that he believed proved the deliberate act to cover-up the outrage. Mr Burnham argued that:

  1. People were given inappropriate treatment.
  2. Tests were done without consent or knowledge.
  3. The results of tests were withheld from patients, even when positive, for years, even decades.
  4. Infected people, unaware of their condition, unwittingly infected others.
  5. Falsification of medical records to deny treatment to patients. For example, in one case the haemophiliac’s records falsely suggested his liver disease was through self-inflicted alcoholism rather than a hepatitis infection and he was refused a liver transplant.

Health minister Nicola Blackwood is resisting calls for a fresh inquiry, saying that two reviews have already been carried out and thousands of documents relating to the situation had been released by the Department of Health.

David Cameron, as prime minister in 2015, apologised to thousands of victims who had been infected, and in 2016 the Government launched a consultation on the money available to those affected.

After the consultation it was announced that patients in England with stage 1 Hepatitis C would be granted £3,500 annually with a possibility of this being increased to £15,000, through appeal. The higher figure is close to that received by those infected with HIV by the contaminated blood.

The Government also announced it will fund payment for the bereaved partner or spouse of individuals infected with Hepatitis C and/or HIV as a result of receiving NHS-supplied blood products.

However, the campaign for the truth by the Haemophilia Society and victims' families has been compared to the efforts of the families of the Liverpool football fans who died in the Hillsborough disaster, in that both situations arose from the negligence of public bodies and ‘involved an orchestrated campaign to prevent the truth from being told’.

Mr Burnham stated that he would take his claims to the police if a new inquiry is not established before Parliament breaks for its summer recess in July. Mr Burnham's deadline therefore is now likely to be affected by the upcoming election.