Doctors 'didn't want to accept' blood products were risky, inquiry hears

Dr Diana Walford CBE addresses the Infected Blood Inquiry

Dr Diana Walford CBE addresses the Infected Blood Inquiry - Credit: Infected Blood Inquiry

A former senior Department of Health (DHSS) medic told the Infected Blood Inquiry (IBI) this week that top doctors "really didn't want to accept there was a safety issue" with the blood products used to treat patients.

Dr Diana Walford held a series of senior roles at the DHSS – as principal medical officer from 1979 to 1983, and a senior principal medical officer from 1983 to 1986 and 1987 to 1989. 

As part of her role she sometimes attended meetings of the country's top haemophilia medics – including those at the Royal Free – and she told the IBI in her statement that they “jealously guarded the concept of clinical freedom”.

Speaking about how in the late 1970s and early 1980s it had been difficult to track where batches of blood products had gone, she said in 1983 doctors had bridled at a suggestion that products were purchased centrally.

Factor VII blood products, Sir Brian Langstaff. Picture: Factor VIII / Infected Blood Inquiry

Sir Brian Langstaff chairs the Infected Blood Inquiry - Credit: Archant

Dr Walford explained: "They didn't want to accept that there was a genuine issue here - a safety issue. They felt that we were going to, in some way, circumscribe their ability to prescribe and that was never the intention.

"It was a sort of travesty of what we were trying to do."

She said this had been inspired by fears that "we simply didn't have a handle" on where particular blood products were being used.

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Dr Walford also spoke of how by the time she was working at DHSS attitudes towards the "less convenient" cryoprecipitate product used to treat haemophiliacs were that "it was considered to be old hat". 

Doctors have previously spoken at the IBI about how they felt the newer blood factor products made huge differences to patients' lives, but many of the patients themselves – including those at the Royal Free feel they were never given the opportunity to make an informed decision on the risks.

In her evidence on Tuesday, Dr Walford spoke of attitudes to whether or not blood products were thought to transmit the then-unidentified  HIV virus. 

"I think there was a degree of not necessarily scepticism, but reticence amongst UK Haemophilia Centre Directors that this was potentially transmissible," she said. "But actually in the Department I don't recall anybody saying: 'No, no, it's absolutely obvious that it isn't.'"

Dr Walford was shown a letter in which she was described as saying "the value of factor concentrates to severe haemophiliacs far outweigh the possible, and as yet unproven hazards of transmission of [AIDS]".

She said she would defend that position then, adding: "I still think now – of course I now know about AIDS and its terrible consequences – but I still believe that, at that time, the hazards were unproven of transmission and basically what one knew was that the severe haemophiliacs desperately needed Factor VIII or Factor IX."

The contaminated blood scandal has seen thousands of people die after receiving contaminated blood products or transfusions, most notably with the haemophiliac community. The blood they received during the 1970s and 1980s contained lethal viruses including HIV and hepatitis C. 

Dr Walford was asked about decisions not to change policy on using commercial Factor VIII – a blood product used to treat haemophilia – in the early 1980s as more evidence of haemophiliacs developing AIDS appeared in the US. 

Citing limited stocks of the older cryoprecipitate product and "logistics" of rationing NHS-made product. She said:  "It was absolutely between a rock and a hard place, if you like. There was no good option available."

On Monday Dr Walford was asked whether she thought an "overarching committee" looking at the safety of blood and blood products should have been formed, and she answered: "Indubitably. Obviously it would have been a good thing.”

Asked if it was something that she recalls ever being discussed during the period up to the end of 1983, Dr Walford said: “Not at all.”

Thursday and Friday this week see Simon Glenarthur – a former DHSS minister – give evidence, before former health secretary Ken Clarke addresses the IBI from Monday. 

Another former health secretary, Norman Fowler, has just been announced to give evidence when hearings resume in September.