Witness statements given to the contaminated blood scandal inquiry are “harrowing” and “incredibly moving”, a former high court judge has said.
Sir Brian Langstaff promised the probe would be “frightened of no-one” and thanked victims for their bravery as hearings began into the NHS error which saw almost 5,000 people with haemophilia given blood containing hepatitis C or HIV in the 1970s and 1980s.
It has been described as the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.
Two previous inquiries have been branded a whitewash by campaigners.
The size and scope of this investigation was described as “unprecedented”, by counsel Jenni Richards QC as the hearings got underway at central London’s Fleetbank House.
“It’s been referred to as the biggest public inquiry the United Kingdom has ever undertaken,” she said, adding approximately 1,200 witness statements have been received from individuals who were infected or affected.
She said the inquiry expects to receive at least a further 1,200 statements over the coming months.
Ms Richards also said it seems “likely” there may still be potentially “many thousands of people” who remain unaware they may have been infected as a result of the receipt of infected blood or infected blood products.
One of the the first witness statements, which included those from Dr Carole Anne Hill, who found out in January 2017 that she had hepatitis C.
Derek Martindale, a severe haemophiliac, who contracted HIV and hepatitis C in 1985 from contaminated blood products and was told not to tell anyone because it could have made him a “social pariah”, also gave evidence.
He said he was 23 when he was diagnosed with HIV and was given a year to live. He was advised not to tell anyone, even his family, because of the stigma surrounding the illness at that time, he added.
“When you’re young, you’re invincible; when you’re 23, you’re generally fit – but then you’re told you have 12 months to live – it’s very hard to comprehend, so there was the fear,” he said. ”There was no future, the likelihood of getting married and having children was very unlikely.”
Mr Martindale told the inquiry that his brother Richard, who also had severe haemophilia, had also contracted the virus and died aged 23 in 1990.
His greatest regret was not being able to support his brother in the months before he died, he said.
Sitting next to his adult son, Mr Martindale said his brother had been “full of life” before contracting HIV and had been a painter and decorator.
“He was full of life, he was a crazy youngster, he was a haemophiliac,” he said. “He got a job as a painter and decorator so he spent half his days standing on a ladder – his haemophilia doctor was not very pleased about that.”
He had returned to Yorkshire for his sister’s wedding when his brother had wanted to speak about his illness, he said.
With his voice often breaking, he added: “He was very ill at the time, he was wasting away in a sense. He knew he was dying, he knew he had Aids and that he didn’t have long to live and he just wanted to talk about that, talk about his fears, how scared he was. But I couldn’t, it was too close to home for me and I wasn’t there for him, I wasn’t there for him and three months later he died.
“It was the biggest regret of my life because he has gone and I cannot do anything to make amends for that.”
Mr Martindale said he had felt relationships had not been an option for him because he was expecting to die and sex was the main way his infection was spread.
He told the inquiry a long-term girlfriend whom he had told about his infection had left him because she “couldn’t stand to watch me die”.
But he said when he told his future wife he had HIV and hepatitis C she had said “Is that it?”. He added: “That was a wonderful response.”
Mr Martindale said the couple had agreed not to tell their son until he was an adult. He became aware he had also been infected with hepatitis C in 1997.
He said there is “still a stigma” associated with HIV and hepatitis C, adding: “I think society needs to move on from that and I hope this helps.”
He was given a standing ovation when he finished his testimony.
Dr Carole Anne Hill told the room she had found out in January 2017 she had hepatitis C, having become infected as a result of a blood transfusion she had in 1987.
She had menorrhagia at that time, suffering from heavy periods, and needed a blood transfusion urgently as she was becoming more and more anaemic.
Dr Hill was contacted in November 2016 about getting a blood test looking out for markers of gynaecological problems, and one of the tests screened for hepatitis C – although she did not know that at the time.
Asked if she was told she was going to be tested for the condition, she told the inquiry: “No, not at any time.”
Talking about how she heard about her diagnosis, Dr Hill said: “By letter, which was half-opened and not sealed properly.”
She added: “I was cross about that.”
She said in her statement that the way the diagnosis was communicated as “entirely inappropriate”, the inquiry heard.
After the inquiry hears from victims in central London, there will be similar testimonies taking place over the coming months in Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
Additional reporting by PA
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