Infected Blood Probe Slams UK State Over ‘Chilling’ Cover-Up

(Bloomberg) -- An inquiry into the UK’s decades-long contaminated blood scandal found evidence of a “chilling” cover-up by the British establishment, a watershed moment that will finally trigger billions in compensation for the worst treatment disaster in the history of the revered National Health Service.

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“The scale of what happened is horrifying,” Brian Langstaff, chairman of the official Infected Blood Inquiry, said in a report published on Monday that blamed systemic, ethical and both individual and collective failures for a “calamity.” The cover-up was “chilling in its implications,” he said. “To save face and to save expense, there has been a hiding of much of the truth.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the report’s publication “a day of shame for the British state” as he issued an official apology in the House of Commons. He said the government would set out a “comprehensive compensation” program for victims and relatives on Tuesday. That is expected to total over £10 billion. “The result of this inquiry should shake our nation to its core,” Sunak said.

More than 30,000 people were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s after receiving treatments with contaminated blood products. Victims and their families have spent decades fighting for justice and compensation, yet a public inquiry was only announced in 2017. Langstaff said there was enough information to warrant one as early as 1986.

Though years have past, the findings risk further undermining the reputation of the NHS at a sensitive time, with the state-run service facing an overhaul to deal with a patient backlog regardless of which party wins the general election expected later this year. The inquiry painted a picture of professional negligence but also of administrators and governments of various political persuasion refusing to engage with mounting evidence that a major scandal had occurred. The victims were infected at a time when there was still considerable stigma around HIV especially, and before treatment was widely available.

Read More: Infected Blood Payouts of £10 Billion Complicate Sunak Tax Plans

Langstaff found examples of experimental treatments carried out on patients — including children — without their consent, as well as medical records being tampered with. “There may have been a closing of ranks in certain situations resulting in somebody thinking it would be wise to remove items,” he wrote.

The inquiry was announced in 2017 by then Prime Minister Theresa May, decades after the infections took place, and criticism of that delay is a theme running through the report. Along with many victims, some of the key doctors and officials involved with the blood treatments died long before the inquiry.

“A lot of the villains in this story sadly have now died,” Jason Evans, whose father was among the victims, told a televised press conference on Monday. “There could well be a case for criminal charges, and that’s just a testament to the fact that the government did not launch a public inquiry earlier.”

Sunak’s administration has also faced criticism for holding off the full compensation process until the full report was published, ignoring a recommendation last year. The inquiry had already suggested interim payments of at least £100,000 to the infected and all bereaved partners, and the government has said it’s paid out £400 million so far.

“It may be that justice and redress are just around the corner — for those who are still alive,” Langstaff said. “But at the time of writing this report I have no way of knowing if this is the case. Nor, more importantly, do those infected and affected. That is a serious failing which replicates the wrongs of the past.”

Yet the recriminations extend beyond current Conservative government, which has been in power since 2010. Paul Johnson, director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told Times Radio on Monday that when he was working for the Treasury in the 2000s, the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also knew about the scandal and “deliberately decided not to do anything about it.”

The reality is that Britain’s major parties didn’t act. Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, who is also a former health secretary, told the inquiry that the state had closed “ranks around a lie” to protect itself. Langstaff said the fear that any probe would recommend compensation was a “central factor” in the successive governments opting not to sign off on one.

Yet beyond the questions for individual politicians and their parties, the findings are likely to further undermine trust in British institutions and politics itself.

“This is an injustice that has spanned across governments,” Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said in Parliament. “On an unprecedented scale and collectively, we failed to protect some of the most vulnerable in our country.”

There are clear parallels with other scandals that have engulfed the British establishment. That list includes the 96 football fans unlawfully killed at Hillsborough in 1989, with all the injustices that followed. The Post Office, another celebrated institution that relied on faulty software to falsely accuse hundreds of its branch managers of theft, is another slow-burn disaster that has finally reached the compensation stage on Sunak’s watch.

The catastrophic fire at London’s Grenfell Tower in 2017 is also the subject of an inquiry, which is looking at the impact played by UK construction rules.

What they share is a common theme of cover-ups and the wider sense that the British state is not working for its citizens. In the case of the infected blood scandal, the victim groups were NHS patients who were hemophiliacs or other recipients of blood transfusions. In the 1970s the UK was struggling to meet demand for blood-clotting treatments, and used imported supplies from the US.

But what they bought often had blood from high-risk donors such as prison inmates and drug users. Batches were contaminated, and patients went on to develop conditions such as Hepatitis C and HIV. An estimated 3,000 people died.

“Yet again, a community has had to fight for decades for the truth to come out,” May said after the report she commissioned was published. “We cannot and must not continue to allow a culture whereby institutions seek to protect themselves over the people who have been so damaged by their actions.”

--With assistance from Isabella Ward.

(Updates with Sunak’s apology in third paragraph.)

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