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Investigating the UK’s tainted blood scandal: everything you need to know | Explanation news

A public inquiry into the infection of nearly 30,000 people from contaminated blood treatment in the UK between the 1970s and 1980s has come back into the limelight this week after former British Prime Minister Sir John Major appeared and testified under oath.

The former prime minister, answering questions about what his government knew about the contaminated blood treatment that killed thousands, said the victims were “unbelievably unlucky”, a description that angered survivors and relatives who watched.

Although he later apologized and said his comment was not intended to be offensive, the victims demanded an apology.

Former British Prime Minister John Major answers questions
Former British Prime Minister John Major answers questions [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

What is the scandal about?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the British National Health Service (NHS) gave patients with haemophilia and other blood disorders contaminated blood contaminated with HIV or hepatitis C.

The contaminated blood was provided as blood clotting treatments while the UK was short of donated blood.

To meet a huge demand for factor VIII – the blood clotting treatment, the NHS imported blood products from the United States.

The blood was distilled from thousands of people, including prisoners who were paid to donate, but it was never screened before transfusions, infecting nearly 30,000 people with disease.

The victims and next of kin claim they were never warned of the contaminated blood risk and accuse the government of negligence.

How did the story come to light?

The scandal only came to public attention in 2016, when organizations advocating for the victims and their families pressured the government to investigate and reveal the truth.

Jason Evans, the founder of Factor 8, an organization that lobbied for a public inquiry into the scandal, told Al Jazeera the group has never stopped holding the government accountable.

“I think those in power felt that they could get away with it and it’s been forgotten and that they successfully spread a story that this was an inevitable accident, which is not the truth,” he said.

The health scandal is considered the biggest treatment disaster in the UK’s modern history.

What does the research look at?

The independent public inquiry has been launched to investigate the conditions under which thousands of people with haemophilia have received contaminated blood products since 1970.

The investigation, announced by former British Prime Minister Theresa May on 11 July 2017, began gathering evidence in early 2019.

It is led by a former British judge, Sir Brian Langstaff, who is supported by a team of legal professionals, researchers and officials.

They have held several hearings in London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff and Belfast and have spoken to the victims, relatives and former senior government officials.

They are expected to question more senior government officials to testify.

The study examines how much was known about the contaminated blood products and whether patients were warned about the risks.

It is also examined whether the scandal has been deliberately covered up over the years.

What could be the outcome of the investigation?

Matt Hancock, who was the UK’s health secretary when he appeared for the inquiry in 2021, said the government would stick to what the final report recommends.

“Should the outcome of this investigation be substantial compensation for the victims, the government will provide it,” he told the investigation.

In the 1970s, thousands of people in several other countries, including Japan, Canada and the US, also became infected.

Some of them sued the companies that supplied the contaminated products and were paid millions of dollars. Several countries have condemned government officials and suppliers.

But in the UK, while that hasn’t happened, the inquiry announced criminal trials could also be recommended when the final report is published in 2023.

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