Medical Life

Someone complained about my column last week (it was on the perils of alternative medicine). In my response I said "I am sorry you were upset ... Please do write a letter in response..."

Was that an apology? Of course not. I expressed sympathy and regret for the upset I had caused, without apologising, and I used the word sorry as a way of saying that I felt my correspondent's pain.

Last week, the Government said it felt the pain of the survivors of the thalidomide tragedy, who are still suffering 50 years on.

In a statement to MPs, Mike O'Brien, health minister, said: "I know that a lot of thalidomiders have waited a long time for this. The Government wishes to express its sincere regret and deep sympathy for the injury and suffering endured by all those affected..."

Was that an apology? It was billed as an apology by the Government and reported as such by every media organisation that covered the story (except 'The Independent'). Even the thalidomiders themselves, not wishing to bite the hand that had delivered them £20 million in financial support, described the statement as "absolutely wonderful". But it was not an apology – it was an expression of sympathy and regret.

To help readers distinguish the two, here is an example of a genuine Government apology, delivered in 2008 by armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth for "acts of abuse" carried out by "a very small minority" of British troops in Iraq, which led to the death of the detainee Baha Mousa. Mr Ainsworth told MPs: "I deeply regret the actions of a very small number of troops and I offer my sincere apologies and sympathy to the family of Baha Mousa and the other eight Iraqi detainees." No mistaking that apology – a fulsome expression of regret and acknowledgment of blame. But it merely serves to highlight how inadequate was the statement the thalidomiders got – and after a 50-year wait.

What did the Government have to apologise for? Not showing due duty of care to patients treated by the NHS. In 1957, the year before thalidomide was launched on the British market causing horrific birth defects, the World Health Organisation had warned the UK that its lack of adequate pharmaceutical regulation was courting disaster.

The following year the Cohen committee, a Government agency, granted thalidomide exemption from purchase tax on the grounds that it was a drug of proven value, removing the last barrier to its being prescribed on the NHS. These events demonstrate beyond doubt the Government's complicity in the catastrophe.

It has taken half a century to obtain an expression of sympathy and some cash for the thalidomiders – the first of either the Government has provided. Apologies, it appears, take a little longer.


Our house rabbit chewed through the hi-fi wires at the weekend, barring me from listening to my beloved Schubert. This happens every time the creature gets behind the sofa. It was the same with the previous rabbits we have had. Why is it that small furry animals find electric wires irresistible? Answers, please – before the bunny gets it.