Infected blood tragedy 'could have been avoided', says former health secretary

Handout screen grab issued by the Infected Blood Inquiry of Lord Norman Fowler

Former health secretary Lord Norman Fowler giving evidence at the Infected Blood Inquiry - Credit: PA

Former cabinet minister Norman Fowler has told a public inquiry that much of the tragedy around the infected blood scandal could have been avoided.

Lord Fowler was the Conservative health secretary from 1981 to 1987 and gave evidence for the first time on Tuesday to the independent Infected Blood Inquiry, led by Sir Brian Langstaff. 

The hearing is investigating how and why men, women and children – including Royal Free Hospital patients – received infected blood products, leading to thousands of people contracting HIV, Aids and/or hepatitis during the 1970s and 1980s.

Referring to the government failure to become self-sufficient in the supply of blood and blood products Fowler said: “The crucial failure in BPL (Blood Products Laboratory) and the development of BPL was in the 1970s. If David Owen's advice had been taken and we had gone for self-sufficiency as a nation, then much of the ensuing tragedy could have been avoided.

“By 1985 we had largely eradicated the issue. There was nothing I could have done or my department could have done to influence the outcome.”

Lord Own was health secretary in Harold Wilson's Labour government from 1974-76.

Records show doubts were cast in 1982 about the safety of imported blood product. In 1983 Dr Diana Walford, at the time a principal medical officer at the Department of Health and Social Security, stated that AIDS was likely being transmitted by blood and blood products. 

“The risk that these products may transmit the disease must be balanced against the risk to haemophiliac,” Fowler said. 

“As Dr Walford said, it would have been premature to have cut off the imports of blood products from the US without suggesting an alternative." 

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Asked whether the public should have been given information on the risk he replied: “I am not sure what exactly the message would have been.”

The contaminated blood scandal has seen almost 4,000 recorded people infected with lethal viruses of hepatitis C or hepatitis C and HIV by a commercial medicine called Factor VIII in the 70s and 80s.

The contaminated batches came from pharma companies in the US which were pooling blood from high risk individuals.

Jason Evans, of the Factor 8 campaign, said: "It's pretty clear that Norman Fowler, along with the rest of us, can see this scandal was almost entirely avoidable, and it's good to hear him admit that much.

"What I think is quite disingenuous though is for him to now try and avoid any responsibility by pleading that this was someone else's fault.”