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Delays led to thousands receiving contaminated blood

An independent inquiry today condemned the "procrastination" that led to thousands of patients becoming infected with HIV and Hepatitis C from contaminated blood.

The inquiry, led by Labour Peer Lord Archer of Sandwell, said the infection of so many people was a "horrific human tragedy."

The authors of the report said they were "dismayed" at the time taken by the Government and scientific agencies to respond to the dangers of Hepatitis C and HIV infections.

The report noted there was "lethargic" progress towards national self-sufficiency in blood products in England and Wales, where it took 13 years compared to just five years in Ireland.

As a result the NHS bought blood from US suppliers who used what became known as "skid row" donors, such as prison inmates, who were more likely to have HIV and Hepatitis C.

The report said: "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that commercial interests took precedence over public health concerns."

It added: "Whether the lack of urgency over much of this period arose from over-hesitant scientific advice or from a sluggish response by Government is now difficult to assess."

Nearly 2,000 haemophiliacs have died as a result of exposure to the contaminated blood in what leading medical expert Lord Winston called "the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS".

Some 4,670 patients who received blood transfusions in the 1970s and 1980s were infected with Hepatitis C, of whom 1,243 were also infected with HIV.

Lord Archer's two-year privately-funded inquiry was set up after decades of campaigning from victims and their families.

Today's report noted: "The haemophilia community feels that their plight has never been fully acknowledged or addressed."

The authors said a full public inquiry into the scandal should have been held much earlier to address the concerns of haemophiliacs.

In conclusion they said: "Commercial priorities should never again override the interests of public health."

The report made a series of recommendations, including:

* The formation of a committee to advise the Government on the management of haemophilia;

* The testing of patients with haemophilia and their partners for any conditions with which they could have been infected;

* The testing of all blood donors after they give blood;

* Those who were infected should be given cards entitling them to benefits not freely available on the NHS, including prescription drugs, counselling and home nursing;

* Compensation for those infected and for carers who have been prevented from working. This should be paid through the Department of Work and Pensions, and should not be means-tested;

* A scheme to ensure haemophilia patients have access to insurance;

* And an exercise to identify any people who were infected by contaminated blood but are still not aware of this.

It emerged last week that a haemophiliac had contracted the human form of mad cow disease - Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) - after being treated with a blood-clotting agent from an infected donor.

The authors of today's report warned: "The problems surrounding vCJD are a reminder that new infections may yet arise, with serious results."

Lord Archer, asked if there should be an apology, said some advocated this approach as a means of recognising the human suffering that had been caused.

He said: "It doesn't necessarily have to be construed as an admission that it was the Government's fault.

"If you tread on somebody's foot on a crowded train it may not be your fault but at least you say sorry, and I think probably it would help to achieve closure and help to alleviate feelings a bit if there was some kind of apology."

He added that he was "surprised" by the Department of Health's decision not to give evidence to the inquiry.

"I am bound to say that in questions in which I have been involved if someone is giving evidence about it I have wanted to give evidence too.

"I would like to say anything that could be said on my own behalf and I am surprised that the Department (of Health) did not take the same view.

Asked who was to blame, Lord Archer replied: "We have not gone out of our way to apportion blame, it is a bit late and perhaps a bit pointless to say who is to blame when it is too late to do much about it.

"What we have said is that the important thing now for the Government is to try to remedy the condition of people who have suffered."

He said the inquiry had "hesitated" to put a figure on how much compensation should be paid.

He said: "If we put a figure on it I fear it would be a starting point for the Government to say well we start from there and then we knock it down. It would have been inviting a lower figure than we would have chosen so we said, as a guide, look to see what is being paid in Ireland, but we certainly would not want the Government to say 'well, we will confine it to that'."