This is a letter from Gill Fyffe, Hep C survivor. Gill’s book LifeBlood was published yesterday by Freight Books and is available here. Penrose is the only public inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal in the UK and was instigated by Nicola Sturgeon.
Dear Ms Sturgeon,
I write to you not for your politics but to thank you for your courage because once long ago, as Cabinet Secretary for Health, you ordered Lord Penrose to conduct a Public Inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal.
Lord Winston called it the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS, and of course it is not only a Scottish scandal. But for the last twenty six years, since I was given my infected transfusion, the Government in Westminster has refused to hold a Public Inquiry. Unlike you, they were not prepared that political ambition should overlap with truth and responsibility, with public accountability, with letting the electorate listen to the facts.
And as a consequence, for the last quarter of a century, two different questions have been muddled up. The first question is ‘was somebody negligent?’ And the second question is ‘should those infected be offered compensation?’
In the House of Commons Government spokesmen have got up time after time to explain that compensation was paid in the Republic of Ireland because a Public Inquiry had shown its officials negligent, whereas no Public Inquiry had shown British officials negligent. This has been a pretty vicious trick, because of course British officials have always refused to hold the Public Inquiry which could have proved them negligent. In the end, the Republic of Ireland got so fed up listening to this nonsense that it sent a special message to tell the House of Commons that Dublin had set up its compensation scheme before its Public Inquiry reported.
It is for others to decide whether the concept of compensation is fair in an already unfair world, whether it should be apportioned by some universal law, or particularly for the victims of contaminated blood scandals, or best kept for high-earning chief executives of banks, ex-director generals of the BBC and so forth. The very fact that compensation is usually awarded through the courts, and is therefore more accessible to those who can afford to pay a lawyer, destroys all notion that it is somehow about ‘fairness’. All I have to say about compensation is that to be ‘fair’ it would have to be, like treatment on the NHS, free at the point of delivery and available to chief executives and transfusion victims alike.
But as it isn’t, contaminated transfusion victims in Britain continue to suffer from the perverse logic that if they haven’t got any compensation, then nobody was negligent and they don’t deserve any. It follows that instead of complaining about their contaminated transfusions, they ought to shut up and take them on the chin.
Well, I took mine on the chin. I took it on the chin when I wasn’t informed for seven years that I had been infected with Hepatitis C. By that time my chances of recovery were significantly reduced. I had grown too exhausted to work. I had fallen asleep at the wheel and written off my car.
But I took it on the chin, punched Alpha Interferon injections into my thighs for a year, and took it on the chin again when the treatment failed. When I was told I wasn’t worth more Interferon treatment, I took that on the chin too, signing away my medical rights to get myself a second go by enrolling on a trial of a new drug, Ribavirin, which is used in combination with Alpha Interferon. I even took it on the chin when I was cured, and had won back a home and a career, only to lose them to a well-documented side-effect of Interferon treatment, auto-immune disease, which I haven’t the legal fees to prove.
So it was a huge step forward when Lord Penrose decided to separate out the question ‘was somebody negligent?’ and concentrate on that.
From the reports that I have read, beneath a quarter century of headlines in the British Library Newspaper Archive, there is little doubt that the British contaminated blood scandal was exacerbated by negligent officials. There are too many reports of warnings from the United States, and from members of advisory committees here, to avoid the conclusion that Britain knew its blood supply was not safe. The Government’s own report Self Sufficiency in Blood Products 2006 admitted that civil servants had to take a calculated risk, vis-à-vis infection rates, while our blood supply was redesigned. It was their job to do that. It was also their job to calculate that risk correctly.
When the British Government claimed in 2010 that with new knowledge… comes often deep regret, it was suggesting that when our daughter was born there was not enough information available to make that calculation. But the record shows there was. Civil servants who thought the risks associated with contaminated blood supplies was worth taking were careless with the facts. Even worse, once the dreadful consequence of that carelessness became apparent, their calculations were inadvertently destroyed by an over-zealous civil servant.
The word ‘over-zealous’ was used in a letter to a former Minister for Health to suggest that civil servants who destroyed hundreds of files of evidence were only extra thorough and hard working. But it is not thorough and hard working to destroy hundreds of important files. It is either a cover up or it is carelessness, again.
And it is bad enough coping with Hepatitis C without the irritation that those who brought about the infection of five thousand people, and the deaths of half of them, are now passing themselves off as over-zealous. Whoever puts out these sorts of excuses makes our Government look ridiculous.
Nor should our Government insult surviving transfusion victims with ten thousand pound bribes to agree it is not liable for their missing salaries. If we are now required by the British taxpayer to bear the loss of our salaries with equanimity – to take one for the team – then let the Government respect us for it. Let them say what happened to you need not have happened, at least not on this scale. Someone made a mistake. And it is now too late to put it right.
Because nothing can rewrite a quarter century of broken health and broken hearts. No compensation will bring two thousand dead back into life. And no apology now relieves the suffering their families have known.
It would be cruel to demand that an apology delivered thirty years late must be accepted. In fact, it must be acceptable. It must mean that next time official mistakes are made, someone resigns.
LifeBlood by Gill Fyffe is published by Freight Books, 2015