The infected-blood scandal shames the NHS

Time to stop treating our decrepit, inhumane health service as a national religion.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

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The findings of the UK’s Infected Blood Inquiry are incredibly, profoundly damning. Between 1970 and 1998, NHS doctors administered blood-clotting agents potentially infected with lethal viruses to thousands upon thousands of children and adults. They knew the treatment was risky. Yet they carried on regardless. Then, as people became ill and started to die, the British state engaged in a cover-up that was ‘subtle, pervasive and chilling’, to paraphrase the inquiry chair, Sir Brian Langstaff.

It’s being referred to as the infected-blood scandal. But to call it a ‘scandal’ does not do justice to the enormity of the wrongdoing. This wasn’t marital infidelity on the part of a TV presenter, or a lockdown-rules-breaking party at No10. This was lethal medical malpractice on an unimaginable scale.

Over the course of seven volumes and 2,500 pages, Langstaff and his inquiry team have laid bare this slow-motion catastrophe. They show how the NHS, from 1970 onwards, imported blood products from the US to treat, in the main, those suffering from haemophilia – a disorder in which the blood doesn’t clot in the usual way. But these blood products were fatally flawed. They included plasma harvested and pooled from drug addicts and prisoners – people, that is, likely to have blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis C and HIV. And so every time doctors administered these treatments, there was always a risk of passing on deadly infections to their patients.

In total, the report estimates that more than 30,000 people in the UK were infected with HIV and / or hepatitis C after being given these products. Some have passed on HIV to their partners. Some have developed AIDS. Others now suffer from cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is estimated that these treatments are responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 men, women and children.

As Langstaff put it, the victims have had their lives defined by their infections; their childhoods enveloped by impending illness; their dreams aborted and their relationships shattered.

The individual stories are heartbreaking. There’s Nigel Hamilton, who at 16 was infected with hepatitis C during routine eye surgery in 1976. His diagnosis wasn’t revealed for over a decade. His illness eventually cost him his career and he needed a liver transplant. He is one of the ‘lucky’ ones. There are many others like Martin White, who was given blood-clotting treatment contaminated with HIV when he was seven years old. Having lived his whole life in the shadow of his lethal infections, he died aged 33 of AIDS-related illnesses. Then there’s little Colin Smith who passed away in 1990, aged just seven, his weightless body ravaged by hepatitis C and AIDS.

Then there’s the story of Treolar’s school in Hampshire, a specialist boarding school for haemophiliac youngsters. Langstaff writes that NHS clinicians treated the children there as ‘objects of research’, experimenting on them at will with the contaminated blood products. Of the 122 pupils who attended the school between 1970 and 1987, just 30 are still alive. Langstaff called clinicians’ actions in Treolar’s ‘unconscionable’.

As the report makes abundantly clear, the suffering that befell so many wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t just a result of those ‘unavoidable adverse effects which can unhappily arise from many medical procedures’, as health secretary Ken Clarke described it in 1985. It certainly wasn’t ‘incredibly bad luck’, as prime minister John Major put it a few years later. The medical establishment and the doctors administering the deadly blood-clotting drugs to their patients were aware of the risks involved. A World Health Organisation report from 1952 warned explicitly of the dangers of making plasma from large pools of people, due to the risk of hepatitis infection. Furthermore, it was widely known from the 1940s onwards that blood products shouldn’t be administered until they have been heated, so as to kill any viral infections. As the report puts it, all the pain and suffering visited upon thousands could ‘largely, though not entirely, have been avoided’.

Just as disturbing as the NHS-made disaster itself has been the attempt over the past few decades to conceal it from public view. The report shows that important documents have disappeared, relevant patient records lost and accountability thwarted. Time and again, NHS leaders, civil servants and politicians have dissembled and deflected when questioned. They have reached for time-worn untruths, claiming ‘we didn’t know what we know now’. Langstaff’s verdict is unequivocal: ‘To save face and to save expense, there has been a hiding of much of the truth.’

Given this combination of large-scale state wrong-doing and institutional cover-up, many commentators have likened the infected-blood calamity to the scandals of Hillsborough and the Post Office. But these comparisons obscure the specific role played by the NHS here. No other institution could visit so much death and misery on so many and escape accountability for so long. Not the Post Office, and certainly not the police.

That the NHS has been able to avoid reckoning with its own catastrophic failure owes a great deal to how it has become sanctified in modern Britain. To the fact that it is treated and used by our cultural and political establishment as something close to a state religion. We’re not meant to challenge it. We’re meant to worship it. We’re not meant to question it. We’re meant to give ‘thanks’ to it, as we did during the early stages of the Covid pandemic.

That is one of the main reasons why the victims have had to wait so many decades for even this inquiry, announced in 2017, let alone the beginnings of any redress or justice. Many of the victims have already died, and many more will likely die before they are fully compensated. Like the families of those mothers and babies killed and harmed in failing NHS maternity units, the victims of infected blood knew, as many others did, that the NHS had done them great harm. That it had betrayed them. Yet politicians and NHS leaders were able to use the NHS’s near-sacred aura to ward off any real reckoning.

Until now, that is. Accepting the conclusions of the inquiry, prime minister Rishi Sunak called it ‘a day of shame for the British state’. It’s certainly that. But it’s a day of shame for one part of the British state in particular. Never has it felt less like ‘Our NHS’ than it does right now.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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