'I'm sorry people had to wait 30 years,' former minister tells Infected Blood Inquiry

Former health minister David Mellor leaves Aldwych House, London, where he gave evidence to the Infected Blood inquiry

Former health minister David Mellor leaves Aldwych House, London, where he gave evidence to the Infected Blood inquiry - Credit: PA

Former Conservative health minister David Mellor has said “shoddy” legal advice over compensation to the victims of the infected blood scandal was a “Pontius Pilate defence”, an inquiry has heard.

Mr Mellor, who was a health minister between July 25 1988 and October 27 1989, told the Infected Blood Inquiry he wanted “proper payments” offered to those affected.

The inquiry is examining how thousands of people – including Royal Free Hospital patients – were infected with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s.

About 2,400 people died in what has been labelled the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.

Large amounts of the infected products were imported from overseas, such as the US, after the UK failed to meet demand from patients, particularly from those with the blood-clotting condition haemophilia.

Appearing as a witness on Thursday (May 19), Mr Mellor said the Department of Health in the late 1980s was not the “creme de la creme”, but added that he worked with “first class” people, such as chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson.

He spoke of having a “responsibility” for dealing with the issue of Aids at the time.

On Thursday, the former Putney MP was questioned on the Macfarlane Trust, which was set up by the government in 1988 to give ex-gratia payments to victims and their families.

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About £10 million was offered initially.

Mr Mellor said: “I never thought £10 million was ever going to be enough, and it wasn’t.”

He added that the trust should have been smaller, and was paying out to victims too “slowly” due to fears about running out of money.

Speaking about compensation to the victims, Mr Mellor criticised “shoddy” legal advice in 1989 arguing that the Department of Health did not have a duty of care for them.

The advice instead said that the duty of care was with local health authorities, the inquiry heard.

He went on: “Some poor devil has got HIV and ‘oh we didn’t have a duty of care’.

“I just couldn’t mouth the words personally… it is the Pontius Pilate defence, ‘bring me a bowl I will wash my hands of this stuff’, well not me.”

Mr Mellor told of wanting to offer “proper payments” straight away in the “hope the misery we inflicted without intending to” could be alleviated “to some degree”.

Former health minister David Mellor leaves Aldwych House, London

Former health minister David Mellor leaves Aldwych House, London, where he gave evidence to the Infected Blood inquiry - Credit: PA

He spoke of understanding at the time that mishandling the matter “would be a very serious blow to people’s confidence” and had “no stomach” for resisting the financial claims made by those affected.

However, Mr Mellor also said: “I’m sorry people have had to wait 30 years for this to happen. It is not in my view good.

“But the point is just because something awful happens doesn’t mean it is somebody’s fault.

“Personally, I would like to look very carefully at why these blood products were bought bearing in mind it is hard to imagine a more dangerous element of society to buy blood products from than the sort of people who would be selling those blood products in America.

“No one could say on existing knowledge as I understand it, it was way off my time, that this was the wrong thing to do.

“Our knowledge of medical science develops day by day, and just because someone or a group of people or a government didn’t have that insight doesn’t mean they are wrong or that they must automatically pay the uttermost amount of compensation.”

He went on to say that the most stressful part of his role was “having to deal with the prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) on the subject of Aids”.

The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, Camden

The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, Camden - Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA

Mr Mellor continued: “The core of this tragedy was buying blood products from overseas and the core of this tragedy was the commercial trade in blood products inevitably meant that blood products certainly in America tended to come from some of the more impoverished sections of the community where there would be added potential for the blood to be contaminated.

“It was the failure to appreciate in that time that the blood products were contaminated and led to a lot of this.

“Now I did not, the assessment of all that was not something I would have had – I couldn’t really expand to, but I’m satisfied every effort was made by all concerned and that it was simply technology lagged behind the reality.”

The Infected Blood Inquiry is being led by former High Court judge Sir Brian Langstaff.