Infected blood scandal: government knew of contaminated plasma ‘long before it admitted it’

Exclusive: files at national archives suggest different version of events

A minister privately expressed concerns that Aids was being transmitted by contaminated blood products while the government publicly insisted there was no “conclusive evidence”, newly uncovered documents from 1983 show.

Among the victims of the contaminated blood scandal, which is the subject of a public inquiry, were 1,240 British haemophilia patients, most of whom have since died. They were infected with HIV in the 1980s through an untreated blood product known as Factor VIII.

In 1983, Ken Clarke, then a health minister, denied any threat was posed by Factor VIII. In one instance, on 14 November 1983, he told parliament: “There is no conclusive evidence that Aids is transmitted by blood products.”

However, documents discovered at the national archives by Jason Evans, whose father died after receiving contaminated blood and who founded the Factor 8 campaign, paint a contrasting picture.

In a letter dated 4 May 1983, Hugh Rossi, then a minister in the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), told a constituent: “It is an extremely worrying situation, particularly as I read in the weekend press that the disease is now being transmitted by blood plasma which has been imported from the United States.”

HIV screening for all blood donated in the UK only began on 14 October 1985.

Rossi’s letter was considered damaging enough for the government to seek to prevent its release in 1990 during legal action over the scandal, by which time Clarke was health secretary.

In another letter uncovered by Evans, dated 22 March 1990, a Department of Health official wrote to government lawyers saying it wanted to withhold Rossi’s letter, despite admitting the legal basis for doing so was “questionable”.

It explained: “The problem with this letter is that the minister appears to be saying, or reporting from what he has read in the press, that Aids was being transmitted by blood plasma at a time when statements were being made that there was no conclusive evidence that this was so.”

The official also expressed a desire to withhold a 1978 document because it referred to “the singular lack of attention” the Department of Health had given to Britain’s blood products laboratory.

Evans, who is giving evidence at the infected blood inquiry on 11 June, said: “These documents show the government did know Aids was transmitted through Factor VIII long before they admitted it and years before they did anything about it. This letter proves once and for all that ministers were well aware of the dangers.

“I think Ken Clarke has serious questions to answer at the inquiry. This isn’t about having the benefit of hindsight; Clarke was peddling false information for months beyond when the grave risks were apparent in his department. Let’s not forget that in the 1980s, with no treatment, Aids was a guaranteed death sentence.

“From the data we have, it’s reasonably fair to say that had untreated Factor VIII been withdrawn from use in May 1983 or earlier, hundreds of lives would have been saved. My father would probably still be alive today.’”

Des Collins, senior partner at Collins Solicitors, who represents more than 1,400 families infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal, described Rossi’s letter as a “classic smoking gun”. He added: “We’ve always suspected there was a government cover-up but this adds credibility to that argument and strengthens our quest to pin culpability on those who failed to do the right thing all those years ago.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson declined to comment directly on the documents but said it was “committed to being open and transparent with the inquiry”.

Clarke said: “In 1983, I was a minister in DHSS but blood products were not one of my responsibilities. As the responsible minister was in the Lords, I sometimes answered written questions in the Commons. I always used the words used to describe the clinical advice of the medical officers in the department that ‘there was no conclusive evidence’ etc.

“I have never seen the earlier document which appears to be the opinion of a former minister. I have never seen the 1990 documents before and I was never told about these apparent discussions at official level at the time.”

Contributor

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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