UK’s contaminated blood scandal inquiry: All you need to know

A blood treatment that infected 30,000 people with HIV and hepatitis C decades ago in the UK returns to the spotlight.

A donor gives blood at a National BlService centre in London
A donor gives blood at a National Blood Service centre in London [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

A public inquiry into the infection of nearly 30,000 people through tainted blood treatment in the United Kingdom between the 1970s and 1980s has returned to the spotlight this week after former British Prime Minister Sir John Major appeared and gave evidence under oath.

The former prime minister, who was answering questions on what his government knew about the contaminated blood treatment that killed thousands of people, has said the victims had “incredibly bad luck”, a description that angered the survivors and bereaved families who were watching.

Though he later apologised, saying his remark was not intended to be offensive, the victims demanded an apology.

British Former Prime Minister John Major answers questions
Former British Prime Minister John Major answers questions [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

What is the scandal about?

During the 1970s and 1980s, the UK’s national health services provider (NHS) gave patients with haemophilia and other blood disorders contaminated blood infected with HIV or hepatitis C.

The contaminated blood was provided as blood-clotting treatments while the UK was experiencing a shortage of donated blood.

To address a huge demand for factor VIII – the blood clotting treatment, the NHS imported blood products from the United States.

The blood was distilled from thousands of people, including prisoners who were paid to donate, but it was never screened before transfusions and thus infected nearly 30,000 people with diseases.

The victims and the bereaved families claim they were never warned of the infected blood risk and accuse the government of negligence.

How did the story come to light?

The scandal came to public attention only in 2016, when organisations advocating for the victims and their families pressured the government to investigate the matter and reveal the truth.

Jason Evans, the founder of Factor 8, an organisation which lobbied for a public inquiry into the scandal, told Al Jazeera the group has never given up on holding the government to account.

“I think those in power felt that they can get away with it and it has been forgotten and that they had successfully peddled a narrative that this was an unavoidable accident which isn’t the truth,” he said.

The health scandal is believed to be the biggest treatment disaster in the UK’s modern history.

What is the investigation looking at?

The independent public inquiry was established to examine the circumstances under which thousands of people with haemophilia have been given infected blood products since 1970.

The investigation announced by the UK’s ex-Prime Minister Theresa May on July 11, 2017, started taking evidence in early 2019.

It is led by a former British judge, Sir Brian Langstaff, who is supported by a team of legal professionals, investigators and civil servants.

They have conducted several hearings in London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff and Belfast and have spoken to the victims, bereaved families and former senior government officials.

They are expected to question more senior government officials to give evidence.

The investigation looks into how much was known about the infected blood products and whether patients were warned of the risks.

They are also looking at whether the scandal was deliberately covered up over the years.

What could be the inquiry’s outcome?

Matt Hancock, who served as the UK health secretary when he appeared before the inquiry in 2021, said the government would abide by whatever the final report recommended.

“Should the outcome of this inquiry be substantial compensation for the victims, the government will provide that,” he told the inquiry.

Thousands of people in several other countries, including Japan, Canada and the US, were also infected in the 1970s.

Some of them sued the companies that supplied the infected products and were paid millions of dollars. Several countries have convicted government officials and suppliers.

But in the UK, even though that did not happen, the inquiry announced that criminal trials could also be recommended when the final report is published in 2023.

Source: Al Jazeera