Government confirms first compensation package in 50 years – but still no apologies

The Government yesterday expressed its regret and sympathy for the victims of the 1960s thalidomide tragedy for the first time since the disaster unfolded half a century ago.

But it stopped short of apologising for its role in the world's worst drug catastrophe, as had been expected.

Instead, the Health minister Mike O'Brien confirmed a £20m support package, announced last month, which will be administered through the Thalidomide Trust to help meet the needs of survivors. It is the first time the Government has provided them with financial support.

In a carefully worded statement to the Commons that has been awaited for 50 years, Mr O'Brien told MPs: "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 when expectant mothers took the drug thalidomide between 1958 and 1961.

"We acknowledge both the physical hardship and the emotional difficulties that have faced the children affected and their families as a result of this drug, and the challenges that many continue to endure, often on a daily basis.

"In the light of what happened, a complete review of the machinery for marketing, testing and regulating drugs was initiated, including the enactment of the Medicines Act 1968, which introduced further testing for medicines prior to licensing to ensure that they meet acceptable standards of safety and efficacy."

Pregnant women were prescribed the drug in the 1950s and early 1960s as a treatment for morning sickness or insomnia. It was withdrawn from sale in 1961 after babies were born with limb deformities and other damage.

In 1958, a government agency called the Cohen committee granted thalidomide exemption from purchase tax, on the grounds that it was a supposedly proven remedy, in effect approving it for prescription on the NHS. Despite this, the British Government has never acknowledged responsibility for its role in the tragedy nor, until now, offered financial compensation.

There are 466 thalidomide survivors in the UK, with varying levels of disability. Currently they receive an average of £18,000 a year from the Thalidomide Trust. The trust was established to administer compensation paid by Distillers, the manufacturers of thalidomide, and its successor companies.

As the survivors have aged – most are now in their late 40s or early 50s – their needs have grown. If the Government's pilot scheme is a success, it is expected to be reviewed after three years for the lifetime of those affected by the drug. The cash has been found from "within existing health budgets", the department said.

Guy Tweedy, 47, a Thalidomide campaigner from Harrogate, described the Government's statement as "absolutely wonderful". He said: "I'm highly delighted and so glad that it actually came, 50 years too late but never mind. It's a big day."