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Infected Blood Inquiry: Former health secretary calls for compensation for scandal victims – and Sir Keir Starmer backs campaigners

PUBLISHED: 17:51 22 September 2020 | UPDATED: 17:53 22 September 2020

Lord Owen, the former health secretary, gave evidence to the Infected Blood Inquiry. Picture: Infected Blood Inquiry/Polly Hancock

Lord Owen, the former health secretary, gave evidence to the Infected Blood Inquiry. Picture: Infected Blood Inquiry/Polly Hancock

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Former health secretary David Owen told the Infected Blood Inquiry that the government should move to award “no-fault compensation” to those infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal.

Lord Owen, the former health secretary at the Infected Blood Inquiry. Picture: Infected Blood InquiryLord Owen, the former health secretary at the Infected Blood Inquiry. Picture: Infected Blood Inquiry

Thousands of haemophiliacs – including hundreds at the Royal Free Hospital’s haemophilia unit – were given blood products to treat bleeding which also contained lethal viruses like HIV and hepatitis C. Campaigners estimate a victim dies every four days.

The ongoing inquiry is investigating who knew the risks of these products at the time, and how the disaster came to happen.

The scandal saw thousands of haemophiliacs – including hundreds at the Royal Free Hospital’s haemophilia unit – given blood products to treat bleeding which also contained lethal viruses like HIV and hepatitis C. Campaigners estimate a victim dies every four days.

READ MORE: Contaminated blood scandal: Patients slam top medic over being treated ‘like lab rats’

Holborn and St Pancras MP – and Labour Party leader – Sir Keir Starmer has also explicitly backed calls for the government to provide compensation before the end of the independent inquiry.

Sir Keir said: “Victims of the contaminated blood scandal and their families have been waiting for justice for decades. The government is wrong to say that they will only consider the issue of compensation once the inquiry has concluded and this approach is causing continued suffering.”

He said the Labour Party would “continue to call on the government to address this historic injustice”.

The independent public inquiry – led by Sir Brian Langstaff – resumed its hearings this week, with Lord Owen the first witness to give evidence.

Lord Owen, who was health secretary between 1974 and 1976, told the inquiry: “We should go for the New Zealand system of no-fault compensation and take this out of the law courts and out of the current confrontational system and accept that in healthcare we sometimes damage patients, not willingly, not wantingly, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes out of deliberate decision.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers his keynote speech during the party's online conference from the Danum Gallery, Library and Museum in Doncaster. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers his keynote speech during the party's online conference from the Danum Gallery, Library and Museum in Doncaster. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

Asked what he meant by “deliberate decision” by Sir Brian, Lord Owen said he was referring to not reaching self-sufficiency as he had pledged in 1975.

The life peer focussed on his disquiet at government failures to become “self-sufficient” in terms of blood stocks after he left the role and said: “We are still not fulfilling our financial obligations, particularly given we were not self-sufficient.”

He told the inquiry, as he has discussed publicly before, how longstanding concerns about the safety of imported blood were behind his drive towards self-sufficiency. He relayed how during his time in office his department had pushed doctors to balance treatment choices and whether to give patients limited stocks of blood factor products rather than an older, less convenient but safer treatment comprised of freezed-dried plasma.

He added: “If I may so I do find it quite extraordinary that there can be this attempt to pretend, in 2001, that the only reason we were going for self-sufficiency was cost.

“That was a blatant lie and I don’t know how it was put through the department. It’s an absolute monstrous accusation and can’t be allowed to go unchallenged.

“The reason for self-sufficiency was the contamination of blood in products coming in, but products that were needed for patients care. We couldn’t just stop it, that would have had a disastrous effect on them.

“It was a reading of other infections that we may not be able to diagnose.”

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Lord Owen said he did not think one could blame clinicians for the treatment disaster. He said: “It’s difficult. The doctors are trying to do their best for the patients.

“I don’t envy them the choices they were having to make as doctors. I wouldn’t like to be second-judging.”

“But in all conscience I do not think I do disagree with this decision-making. What I did feel was you’ve got to stop this blood coming in mainly from America.”

He added: “We have to face up to the fact that we failed them. We did not achieve self-sufficiency. I do not think politicians can walk away from this or the medical profession can walk away from this. 
“We were warned. And the facts were there.”

He concluded: “We have all of us politicians failed to face up the fundamental thing: When things go wrong, have a post-mortem.

“We need to look at how to do better. I hope very much as a result of this inquiry there are some changes made.”

The peer’s private papers as health secretary have been lost by government – he confirmed he did not know when or why this happened.

He added it was important to consider how the doctor-relationship had changed in since the 1970s, but added he was sure medics would have been aware of the risks of blood products created from paid-for donors in countries such as America.

He added: “I don’t believe any doctor in the country would not be aware of it.”

“This is a whole question of clinical freedom and this whole vexed issue about what you say to a patient. we have to understand the climate has changed a great deal. “

Throughout this period you will find evidence coming back through doctors’ bodies,

Speaking at the start of proceedings, Sir Brian used the coronavirus epidemic as a comparitor to highlight the scale of the rise of coronavirus infections to 31 million worldwide, with more than 960,000 deaths.

He cited the millions of people living with HIV/Aids, and hepatitis C and B, and said: “I am not trying to minimise at all the importance of Covid. We all have to take it very seriously indeed.

“But, against the backdrop of such worldwide figures, no-one should be in any doubt that this inquiry is dealing with other viruses also capable of doing serious, lasting damage to society. Those diseases should not be minimised either.

“They had a significant impact in this country. 
“No-one should underestimate their potential severity, no-one should undervalue the hurt they have caused and no-one should doubt the importance of what this inquiry is about.”

The inquiry continues throughout September and October with hearings from clinicians and decision-makers.

The Cabinet Office has yet to respond to this newspaper’s query as to compensation.


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