The National Blood Service is being sued by 130 people who contracted hepatitis C between 1989 and 1991 because they believe the service was too slow to introduce tests to screen blood products for the virus.

The National Blood Service is being sued by 130 people who contracted hepatitis C between 1989 and 1991 because they believe the service was too slow to introduce tests to screen blood products for the virus.

The service will face the group action in the High Court in October. It was revealed last week that as many as 500,000 people could have hepatitis C (HCV) in Britain. HCV was first identified in 1989. Because the only symptom in the initial stages is tiredness, the illness can remain indetected for many years.

It is believed to have originated in South-east Asia and was identified by a Briton, Michael Houghton, whose American employer, the Chiron Corporation, began a multi-million dollar project to develop an HCV test for use on blood products. The test was first used by the National Blood Service in September 1991.

Critics say the service was slow to introduce a test. In the US and on mainland Europe a less sophisticated test was introduced before 1991, but the National Blood Service claims it was waiting for an "effective and reliable" test to be developed. A spokesman said yesterday: "Because this is litigation we cannot comment any further until the case is heard."

Paul Saxon, of Dees Mellen in Newcastle, is the leading solicitor representing the 130 people who claim to have been infected through blood transfusions between 1988 (when the Consumer Protection Act came into force) and September 1991 when tests were finally introduced.

The claimants "are essentially claiming compensation because we believe there was an unnecessary delay in introducing tests", Mr Saxon said. He did not reveal how much money his clients were seeking.

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