September 27, 2022

‘I’m sorry people have had to wait 30 years’, former health minister tells Infected Blood Inquiry

Former health minister David Mellor wanted to “deal straight away” with demands for compensation from victims of the contaminated blood scandal during his time in office – more than thirty years ago. In 2022, those affected are still waiting.

Mr Mellor, who served in the Department of Health during 1988 and 1989. At this time, the Government was facing legal action from hundreds of haemophiliacs who had been infected with HIV through infected blood, along with their families. Speaking at the ongoing Infected Blood Inquiry on Thursday, Mr Mellor also said ministers had received “shoddy” legal advice at this time – and said it was clear the Government had a duty of care to those affected.

Answering questions from Inquiry lawyer Matthew Hill, Mr Mellor – who had ministerial responsibility for the AIDS crisis when he took the job in the Department of Health, said: “What I wanted to do was just to deal straight away with this problem and offer proper compensation in hope that the misery that we had inflicted, without intending to, on these folk at least could be alleviated to some degree.”

Read more: Government changed its mind on Infected Blood Inquiry ‘because of pressure from campaigners’

Though support payments – administered through a range of schemes and trusts – have been available over the years, compensation has never been paid. The Government is currently facing calls to publish a report into a “framework for compensation” produced by Sir Robert Francis.

The contaminated blood scandal saw thousands of haemophiliacs infected with lethal virus including HIV and hepatitis C. Others were also infected through blood transfusions, while many subsequently passed on infections to partners. More than 2,400 people have died.

Jesmond’s Carol Grayson and husband Peter Longstaff – a haemophiliac who contracted HIV through products he was given to treat the condition and later died of AIDS – were among those part of the litigation discussed at the Inquiry. The legal case was settled out of court in late 1990 and early 1991, but the payments agreed were “ex gratia” and not compensation.

Those infected and their families were also forced to waive their right to bring further legal action. Carol and Peter were instrumental in bringing the waiver to light.

Mr Mellor said in a written statement to the Inquiry that he “did not think I had any knowledge at the time” that those agreeing to the settlement would be unable to bring claims later for being infected with hepatitis C too. Those affected have said for decades that they were pushed into signing when some in Government and the NHS knew that what was then “non-A, non B hepatitis” had been transmitted.

He said it was right that if “material circumstances were to change” then a waiver ought to cease to apply – though he had not been involved in that aspect of the legal case.

The former minister also said he and others in the department had to deal with “moral indignation” from political figures including then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with regard to AIDS. “They wanted some sense of moral indignation about AIDS, which I never felt able to bring to the party myself,” he said. “It was a condition people got, the question is how to then prevent more people getting it.”

Mr Mellor also criticised legal advice given around the litigation which he said amounted to a “Pontius Pilate defence”. He said: “I just think it is shoddy or appears shoddy to say – ‘Oh, we didn’t have a duty of care.’ You know, some poor devil has got HIV and – ‘Oh, we didn’t have a duty of care.’ I just couldn’t mouth the words, personally.”

He spoke of understanding at the time that mishandling the matter “would be a very serious blow to people’s confidence” and had “no stomach” for resisting the financial claims made by those affected.

However, Mr Mellor also said: “I’m sorry people have had to wait 30 years for this to happen. It is not in my view good. But the point is just because something awful happens doesn’t mean it is somebody’s fault.”

He criticised the focus on “narrow legalistic points are no good” in situations like this scandal, and said he had wanted the Department of Health to take responsibility for what had happened to the scandal’s victims.. The Infected Blood Inquiry is chaired by former High Court judge Sir Brian Langstaff. It is expected to continue throughout 2022 with former Prime Minister Sir John Major and a number of ex Health Secretaries including Andy Burnham and Jeremy Hunt set to give evidence.

Read Next: