The government is to establish a full inquiry into how contaminated blood transfusions infected thousands of people with hepatitis C and HIV, bowing to years of pressure from MPs and campaign groups.
The move came hours before Theresa May faced possible defeat in a Commons vote on an emergency motion about the need for an inquiry into the failings and the 2,400 deaths believed to be involved.
Survivors welcomed the announcement, but said the decades-long wait for answers had been far too long. The contamination took place in the 1970s and 80s, and the government started paying those affected more than 25 years ago.
The Labour MP Diana Johnson, a long-time campaigner for those affected by the tainted blood products, had been granted an emergency debate to be held in the Commons on Tuesday.
Without a substantial majority, the prime minister could have lost on the emotive issue and she announced the inquiry – the format of which is still to be decided – to the weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning.
In a subsequent statement, May said the infection of thousands of people, mainly haemophiliacs, was “an appalling tragedy which should simply never have happened”.
“The victims and their families who have suffered so much pain and hardship deserve answers as to how this could possibly have happened,” May said, saying they “have been denied those answers for too long and I want to put that right”.
May said the government would talk to the families about the shape the inquiry should take “so we ensure that it is able to provide the answers and the justice that they want and deserve”.
Asked if she would apologise on behalf of previous governments, she said: “I’m determined that when you see cases like this, where I think people have suffered injustice, that we do deal with them, that we do ensure that people ... are given the answers they deserve.”
A recent parliamentary report found around 7,500 patients were infected by imported blood products from commercial organisations in the US, whose paid donors included injecting drug users and prison inmates. More than 2,400 haemophiliacs who received the tainted blood are dead.
Speaking during Johnson’s debate, the junior health minister Philip Dunne said families would be consulted about what type of inquiry would be best.
The two most likely options were a judge-led statutory inquiry, or a Hillsborough-type independent panel, Dunne said, adding that the process would begin “as soon as practical”.
Pressure for an inquiry had grown amid campaigning by Johnson and Andy Burnham, the former Labour MP who is now mayor of Greater Manchester.
In his final speech to the Commons in April, Burnham said he had been contacted by victims and families who believed medical records had been falsified to obscure the scandal, saying there was evidence of “a criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”.
Such allegations were key to the government’s decision, Dunne told MPs. “In light of these concerns and reports of new evidence and allegations of potential criminality, we think it is important to understand the extent of what is claimed, and the wider issues that arise,” he said.
Burnham said in a statement the decision to hold an inquiry was “a vindication of all those people who have campaigned bravely throughout the decades, often in the wilderness”.
He added: “But this day has taken far too long in coming. People have suffered enough through contaminated blood. They have been let down by all political parties and public bodies.”
Liz Carroll, chief executive of the Haemophilia Society, said survivors and families had sough the truth for decades. “Instead, they were told by the government that no mistakes were made while it repeatedly refused to acknowledge evidence of negligence and a subsequent cover-up,” she said. “Finally, they will have the chance to see justice.”
Matt Gregory, a trustee of the Macfarlane Trust, which the government set up in 1988 to support survivors of the blood contamination, says it has been chronically underfunded.
“My main concern is the ongoing difficulties that survivors are going through now, with not having enough money and not being supported properly,” said Gregory, 48, who has lived with HIV and hepatitis C since the age of 14.
“I am grateful for the inquiry. I really want to see some interim support put in for people to the level they deserve.”
Gregory paid tribute to campaigners who died during the fight for justice, such as Haydn Lewis, who was was diagnosed with haemophilia at the age of two, and died of complications caused by HIV and hepatitis C.
In an interview with the Guardian eight years ago following an earlier inquiry into the scandal, Lewis recalled getting access to his medical notes, which revealed that although he had tested positive for HIV in 1984, he was not informed until February 1985 – during which time, he believes, his wife was also infected with the virus.
“How do you deal with that?” he asked. “How do you cope knowing that you have given someone you love something that will kill them?”
Lewis was among those who agreed to an ex gratia payment from the government, described as voluntary so as to not formally admit any official liability for what happened. As with others receiving the money, Lewis signed a waiver in 1990 which stipulated he would seek no further recompense for any further infections.