Rishi Sunak apologises for UK’s historic infected blood scandal

PTI, May 21, 2024, 9:32 AM IST

London: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday apologised after Britain’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS) was accused of cover up in an infected blood scandal dating back to the 1970s in a public inquiry report submitted to the government.

Speaking in the House of Commons hours after inquiry chair Sir Brian Langstaff delivered his scathing verdict on the issue, the British Indian leader said it was a “day of shame for the British state” after a catalogue of failures and attitude of denial documented in the inquiry.

The scandal involves over 30,000 people being infected with life-threatening viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis C while they were under NHS care between the 1970s and 1990s, with over 3,000 having died.

“I find it almost impossible to comprehend how it would have felt…I want to make a whole-hearted and unequivocal apology,” said Sunak, addressing the victims and their families, some of whom were in Parliament.

“On behalf of this and every government stretching back to the 1970s, I am truly sorry,” he added, confirming compensation to all ‘whatever it costs’.

The scandal involves infected batches of Factor VIII, an essential blood clotting protein which haemophiliacs do not produce naturally, imported from the US and used widely to treat patients at the time. They were infected as donated blood was not tested for HIV/AIDS until 1986 and Hepatitis C until 1991 in the UK.

“The scale of what happened is horrifying. The most accurate estimate is that more than 3,000 deaths are attributable to infected blood, blood products and tissue,” notes Langstaff in his report following a five-year investigation.

“Standing back, and viewing the response of the NHS and of government, the answer to the question ‘was there a cover up?’ is that there has been. Not in the sense of a handful of people plotting in an orchestrated conspiracy to mislead, but in a way that was more subtle, more pervasive and more chilling in its implications. To save face and to save expense, there has been a hiding of much of the truth,” he said.

The 2,527-page and seven-volume document goes on to detail the enormous scale of the scandal and also makes a series of recommendations, including a speedy compensation scheme for those directly affected and who lost loved ones as a result. The report also calls upon the NHS to ensure anyone who received a blood transfusion before 1996 is urgently tested for Hepatitis C. New patients at any medical practice should also be asked if they had a transfusion before that time.

The report also picks apart the approach to the scandal under the Margaret Thatcher led Conservative Party government, which insisted that people were given “the best treatment available” at the time.

“The reality is that this use of this blanket line to take – sometimes applied to the position of people with bleeding disorders, sometimes to all those infected with Hepatitis C from blood or blood products – was inappropriate. It was wrong and its use was unacceptable. It became a mantra and was never questioned,” it notes.

“An apology should not only give some detail as to what is being apologised for, but to be understood by those to whom it is addressed as sincere and meaningful, it should lead to action. Compensation is part of this,” it adds.

Two sets of people were caught up in this historic health scandal of contaminated blood – people with haemophilia and similar blood clotting disorders who received a new treatment at the time to replace the missing clotting agents made from donated human blood plasma and a second group who had a blood transfusion after childbirth, accidents or during medical treatment.

Ministers from the Sunak-led government have promised to address the issue of final compensation once the inquiry’s report is published, the total cost for which is likely to run into billions of pounds.

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