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(SKY NEWS) – Claims of a cover-up over the deaths of almost 3,000 people infected with HIV or hepatitis C by contaminated blood products will be investigated “without fear or favour”, says the head of the public inquiry.
Speaking on the opening day of the Infected Blood Inquiry, former judge Sir Brian Langstaff said he would put those affected “at the heart of the inquiry” and guaranteed victims he would listen to their concerns.
Solicitors for around 800 victims are calling for former prime ministers John Major and David Cameron to be called to give evidence about what they knew of the official response to the greatest treatment scandal in the history of the NHS.
Addressing around 500 victims and families at Church House in central London, he said: “I want this inquiry to be as open and transparent as it is legally possible to be.
“There is an allegation of a cover-up to be investigated: how could the inquiry itself hide anything from you and keep any integrity?
“You should know that it is not only the law, but a central principle of mine that this inquiry is independent of government; willing to seek documents which may not have been seen before; to hold people to account where appropriate; to express its views at the end without fear or favour, affection or ill-will… and frightened of no-one in the conclusion it will draw.”
At least 4,689 people, many of them haemophiliacs, were infected with HIV, hepatitis C or both in the 1970s and 1980s after being administered contaminated blood products imported from America.
At least 2,944 have since died, including all but 50 of the more than 1,200 infected with HIV and hepatitis C.
Many of those were infected by supplies of Factor VIII, an essential blood-clotting protein that haemophiliacs do not produce naturally.
The UK was reliant on supplies from the US, where it was manufactured with blood collected from prisoners, sex workers, drug addicts and other high-risk groups who were paid to give blood.
There have been persistent claims of a cover-up at the Department of Health and the deliberate destruction of documents, as well as complicity by the drugs industry, and claims some haemophiliacs were deliberately infected and used as guinea pigs for research.
Former health minister Lord Owen, who called for the UK to be self-sufficient in Factor VIII, says his papers were destroyed and believes officials attempted to destroy evidence.
Last autumn Sky News revealed previously unseen cabinet papers that suggested ministers were aware of the scale of the contamination in 1987.
Campaigners have described the administration of contaminated blood as akin to manslaughter.
The inquiry will also examine the cases of at least 5,000 non-haemophiliacs infected with transfusions because of failings in the screening and supply of British blood donations.
The impact of the mass infections went beyond those who were killed or are still living with the consequences of serious illness. Many partners and children were infected, and families had to live with the deep stigma surrounding HIV in the 1980s.
Prime Minister Theresa May announced the inquiry in July last year, on the eve of a parliamentary debate on the issue and the filing of a High Court group action by victims.
At least another 70 people have died since then, and it is estimated many more will not live to see the inquiry’s recommendations.
It will examine how and why contaminated blood was used freely in the NHS, what was known about the risk of infection, and the impact on those affected.
Fresh evidence of a potential cover-up was uncovered in the last year by Jason Evans, founder of campaign group Factor 8. His father was infected and died from HIV when he was four.
He has spent the last three years campaigning for a full judge-led inquiry.
Mr Evans told Sky News: “I grew up without ever knowing my father and it it’s had a huge long-term impact on the family.
“I’m now 29 years old and having to fight a battle that should have been dealt with 30 years ago.
“The ripple effects for me and so many other people are huge.”
Mr Evans said the inquiry must examine allegations of a cover-up, but said many victims were sceptical.
He continued: “It needs to look at the government, medical profession, pharmaceutical companies and also the cover up, what I would allege was a cover up, that followed after the infections had taken place.
“I think at this point cautious optimism is exactly where most of the affected community are at; there is a lot of hope for this inquiry but after everything that has happened over the last 30 years it’s inevitable there will be doubt, there will be fear, there will be scepticism about how genuine this inquiry is and the results that it will bring about.”