Leading Article: In jail in France, but still paid by the NHS

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The Independent Online
JEAN-PIERRE ALLAIN is serving a two-year prison sentence in France, having been found guilty of knowingly distributing Aids-tainted blood to haemophiliacs in France. Since his conviction last October, the National Health Service has continued to pay him pounds 50,000 a year as director of the East Anglian Regional Blood Transfusion Service. It seems absurd that the NHS, which has set aside pounds 42m to compensate British haemophiliacs infected with HIV, should continue to permit such a situation.

Professor Allain, by his own admission, knew at least as early as January 1985 that the blood supply to French haemophiliacs was contaminated and potentially deadly. As head of research at the French national blood transfusion centre, he urged that heat-treated alternatives should be imported. But his superiors did not act for another four months. In the meantime, Professor Allain failed to raise a public outcry. His reticence cost lives. For this sin of omission he was jailed amid fierce anger among French haemophiliacs: more than 250 of them have died of Aids and others are HIV positive.

The heart of the matter is that Professor Allain failed a test to which most of us are never put. He recognised a life- threatening danger, but did not do everything in his power to avert it. Had he protested publicly, lives might have been saved; but he confined himself to informing his superiors.

Sadly, his conduct would not be out of place in the modern NHS. Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, has made clear that health workers are duty-bound to tell managers if there is a problem with patient care. But they lose their jobs if they raise a public alarm. Graham Pink, a nurse who spoke out about conditions on the elderly care wards at his hospital in Stockport, was sacked. Professor Allain still has his pounds 50,000-a-year job.

Professor Allain's British colleagues have been very supportive, an understandable reaction when a respected fellow professional is in trouble. Some believe he has been scapegoated for the failures of a system. A few might feel: 'There but for the grace of God go I' Yet professional allegiance should surely be set aside when it comes to considering the ability of Professor Allain to continue in a British post after being found guilty in his own country of a criminal offence while doing a similar previous job.

Baroness Warnock and a group of eminent professionals have looked at the French case and concluded that Professor Allain's actions 'were consistent with medical, professional ethics'. But her inquiry interviewed only one French witness and produced a report which, at less than three pages, is inadequate as a challenge to a legal decision that was upheld on appeal.

East Anglian Regional Health Authority is due shortly to reconsider Professor Allain's appointment. However belatedly, it should act decisively to show that it no longer wishes to employ somebody whose professional conduct has earned him a prison sentence in a neighbouring country where medical standards are at least as high as Britain's.