‘The victims are dying’: Lawyer critical of speed of the Infected Blood Inquiry
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A leading lawyer representing 1,400 victims of the contaminated blood scandal and their families said the ongoing public inquiry has “not moved quickly enough” over the past three years.
The scandal saw thousands of people given blood products – in many cases to treat haemophilia, but also in blood transfusions – which contained deadly viruses including HIV and hepatitis C in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 2017, Theresa May announced an independent public inquiry would take place into the disaster which has killed thousands.
This is ongoing, and until the coronavirus pandemic hit, the plan was for clinicians and health bosses – possibly including former Royal Free staff – to begin giving evidence in June. Now this has been delayed until at least September.
Des Collins, of Collins Solicitors, represents a large number of the inquiry’s “core participants”.
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He told the Ham&High: “This is a group of people who are dying, all the time. The victims of the scandal are dying and the people the victims believe are responsible for it are dying too.”
The inquiry officially opened under the direction of former High Court judge Sir Brian Langstaff in September 2018; then in April and May 2019 it began hearing the evidence of the infected victims, and their families.
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Des, 71, added: “It has felt very stop-start. Our view is it took too long to get going. We have at least now heard from a lot of the victims, and in that sense the inquiry put a huge amount of effort into hearing from everyone. That was a cathartic experience for people.
“But what doesn’t seem to have happened is the inquiry getting far enough into what I’d call the forensic side of the inquiry.”
An Infected Blood Inquiry spokesperson emphasised that what Mr Collins called the “forensic side” of the inquiry was constantly taking place behind the scenes – with officials including the inquiry’s extensive team of paralegals continuing to examine evidence remotely during the coronavirus lockdown.
Announcing the postponement of the June 2020 hearings, Sir Brian Langstaff said it was “not on pause”.
Des added: “Many of the victims are on the phone to me saying a delay for coronavirus is fine but if they had moved more quickly to begin we would not be facing another six month wait.”
He said he accepted the inquiry “was always going to be behemoth”.
Commenting on the pandemic-induced delay to the inquiry, Highgate’s Della Ryness-Hirsch – whose son Nick died of hepatitis C he contracted through his haemophilia treatment in March 2012, aged just 36 – told this newspaper: “Apart from the devastation that the current coronavirus epidemic represents, and the fear it engenders, it is very sad that it might further delay the continuation of the inquiry.”
Della has spoken of a “long, long history of deceit” which has characterised her family’s experience over the past four decades.
An Infected Blood Inquiry spokesperson added: “The inquiry is proceeding as quickly as possible in order to get to the truth. It was important to hear the voices of those infected and affected first, and our investigation continues quickly and on a large scale. The emerging conclusions from this investigation will help inform our questioning of decision makers later this year.”
When announcing the postponement of June’s hearings, Sir Brian Langstaff said: “The wellbeing of participants in the Inquiry is my predominant concern. This is emphatically so, given the illnesses they have already suffered, and their continuing after-effects. It is also important that wherever and whenever possible we allow the public and participants access in person to our hearings.”
He said he and his team “continue to work full tilt on the investigation and preparation for future hearings” and “remain determined to proceed to a conclusion as quickly as possible”.
The inquiry is scheduled to resume public hearings in mid-September.