By: 3 June 2024
Infected blood scandal exposes decades-long failures

Background of the scandal

In the 1970s and 1980s, contaminated blood products infected over 30,000 people in the UK with HIV and hepatitis C. This event stands as the largest treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service (NHS).


Groups affected

The scandal primarily affected two groups: haemophiliacs and patients receiving blood transfusions.

Haemophiliacs have a rare genetic condition that prevents their blood from clotting properly. A new treatment using donated human blood plasma was developed in the 1970s to replace missing clotting agents (Factor VIII for haemophilia A and Factor IX for haemophilia B). These treatments were contaminated with deadly viruses, resulting in about 1,250 people with bleeding disorders contracting both HIV and hepatitis C, including 380 children. Approximately two-thirds of these individuals later died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Between 1970 and 1991, patients who underwent blood transfusions after childbirth, surgery, or other medical treatments were also affected. It is estimated that between 80 and 100 of these patients contracted HIV, and about 27,000 developed hepatitis C.


The scale of the disaster

In total, it is believed that around 2,900 people have died due to the contaminated blood products. The Haemophilia Society reports that since the inquiry was announced in 2017, approximately 650 people infected with contaminated blood products or their bereaved partners have passed away.


Inquiry findings

The public inquiry into the scandal described the scale of the event as “horrifying” and accused doctors, the government, and the NHS of repeatedly failing patients. Sir Brian Langstaff, the inquiry chairman, emphasised that this disaster was not an accident but a result of systemic failures and an “attitude of denial” towards the risks associated with the treatments. The inquiry highlighted several critical points.

Firstly, authorities took inadequate prevention measures and did little to stop importing blood products from high-risk donors such as prisoners and drug addicts. Secondly, they delayed safety protocols; they did not heat-treat UK blood products to eliminate HIV until the end of 1985, despite knowing the risks since 1982.Thirdly, there was insufficient testing to reduce the risk of hepatitis C from the 1970s onwards. Finally, the authorities were accused of destroying documents and perpetuating half-truths to hide the risks of treatment.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in response to the inquiry’s findings, delivered an apology last month, acknowledging the decades-long moral failure of the British state and its institutions. Sunak stated, “This is a day of shame for the British state. Today’s report shows a decades-long moral failure at the heart of our national life. From the National Health Service to the civil service, to ministers in successive governments… at every level, the people and institutions in which we place our trust… failed in the most harrowing and devastating way.”


Compensation for victims

The government has outlined a compensation scheme expected to cost billions. Specific compensation amounts include:

  • Individuals infected with HIV: Between £2.2 million and £2.6 million.
  • Those with chronic hepatitis C: Between £665,000 and £810,000.
  • Family members of infected individuals: Partners of living HIV-infected individuals could receive around £110,000, while children might receive £55,000.

Interim payments of £210,000 will begin from the summer onwards. These payments will be exempt from tax and will not affect benefits. If entitled individuals have died, their estate will receive the compensation.

Sunak emphasised the importance of justice and accountability, stating, “We will pay comprehensive compensation to those infected and those affected by this scandal… accepting the principles recommended by the inquiry which builds on the work of Sir Robert Francis. Whatever it costs to deliver this scheme, we will pay it.”


Government apology and future steps

Rishi Sunak acknowledged the decades-long moral failure of the British state and its institutions.

He described the scandal as a “calamity” resulting from repeatedly ignoring warnings. The Prime Minister pledged comprehensive compensation and a commitment to ensuring that such a disaster never occurs again. The government plans to address the recommendations of the inquiry in detail and take necessary actions to rebalance the system to prevent future injustices.

In his speech, Sunak said, “Sir Brian finds a ‘catalogue’ of systemic, collective, and individual failures… each on its own serious… and taken together amounting to a ‘calamity’. And the result of this inquiry should shake our nation to its core. This should have been avoided. It was known these treatments were contaminated. Warnings were ignored. Repeatedly. Time and again people in positions of power and trust had the chance to stop the transmission of those infections. Time and again they failed to do so.”

Sunak also highlighted the human cost of the scandal: “I find it almost impossible to comprehend how it must have felt… to be told you had been infected – through no fault of your own – with HIV, or Hepatitis B, or Hepatitis C… or to face the grief of losing a child, or to be a young child and lose your mum or dad.”

“I want to make a wholehearted and unequivocal apology for this terrible injustice. First, to apologise for the failure in blood policy and blood products, and the devastating – and so often fatal – impact this had on so many lives… including the impact of treatments that were known or proved to be contaminated.”

In his concluding remarks, Prime Minister Sunak stressed, “This is an apology from the state – to every… single… person… impacted by this scandal. It did not have to be this way. It should never have been this way. And on behalf of this and every government stretching back to the 1970s… I am truly sorry.”


Image: Canva
Emma Cockings
Emma is a content editor for Claims Media. Emma is a experienced writer with a background in client-centric personal injury for a major firm. She has attended and reported on multiple brokerage events throughout her career.