After decades of denial the government must finally do right by infected blood victims
This week the infected blood inquiry heard closing submissions from the barristers representing victims and their families, as well as the Department of Health and Social Care.
It was astonishing to those of us who have sat through this inquiry since September 2018 that the government’s lawyers took such a tone-deaf and unhelpfully defensive stance. That they continued to peddle the “hindsight” line – that officials could not have known better at the time – is simply beggars belief.
Was the infected blood scandal – the biggest treatment disaster in the history of the NHS whereby thousands died and yet more became infected with HIV or Hepatitis C – avoidable? Partly, yes. Not only did the inquiry hear of multiple occasions when medics, civil servants and others knew of concerns surrounding infected blood products in the 70s and 80s yet failed to act. But worse, we learned there was a deliberate policy of denial and cover up for decades. Ministers were overly deferential to civil servants who stubbornly and persistently refused to admit that mistakes had been made, fearing the legal and financial consequences of doing so.
What the majority of victims want is for the government to stop this head-in-sand behaviour, accept fault, and properly apologise
Former health minister Jeremy Hunt spoke in his evidence of the institutional unwillingness of the NHS to admit its mistakes. Lord Clarke called the response of the medical stream of the civil service inadequate. A list of other prominent figures too helped lift the lid on a vicious circle of untruths which compounded the suffering of many and created the legacy issue of the magnitude we see today.
In his evidence before the inquiry, former MP Andy Burnham even raised the spectre of criminal prosecution – corporate manslaughter charges no less – of the Department of Health, such is seriousness of what has gone on and been allowed to go on. It was not only NHS that failed to learn lessons, but the whole machine of government became complicit in the cover-up that followed.
So overwhelming was the evidence before the inquiry, in fact, that the chair intervened unusually last summer to recommend interim compensation to those still alive. Yet all the government’s counsel was prepared to admit this week was “things went wrong”. It’s surely time for the government to do the right thing by all those who have been affected by this scandal – they want and deserve a full and explicit apology from the government, acknowledging in detail the mistakes that were made and when.
And they all need proper compensation – not piecemeal payment support for heating bills, or a measly carers allowance for those tending to sick relatives. But amounts which recognise lives cut short, lives made unbearable, lives which could have been led differently had responsible action been taken earlier.
Sir Robert Francis has prepared an excellent study on what that compensation could look like. Yet having commissioned it and then taken receipt of it in March last year, the government has still to respond formally on its contents. Various MPs find this unacceptable and spoke out in November, but the inertia, dragging of feet and inability to grapple with this issue seemingly continues. This is entirely consistent with the whole approach we have seen for years.
As our barrister outlined on Tuesday, we call on this government to step up to the plate on the issue of compensation and more. We also want, amongst other things, a memorial to honour the deceased and living victims of the infected blood scandal in each of the UK nations, a duty of candour to be imposed upon the civil service, and health passports and fast-track NHS treatment for infected victims for those still alive.
This government has the opportunity to address decades of wrong and finally do the right thing. It’s about time that Rishi Sunak, Steve Barclay and others change the tone and the dial. Money is one thing. However, what the majority of victims want as well is for the government to stop this head-in-sand behaviour, accept fault, and properly apologise.
Des Collins is senior partner at Collins Solicitors, legal adviser to over 1,500 victims and families affected by the infected blood scandal.
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