The Department of Health did not do anything wrong in how it handled the infected blood scandal in the 1980s, an inquiry has heard.
Lord Ken Clarke, who was a health minister during the crisis from 1982 to 1985, told the Infected Blood Inquiry he was not trying to absolve himself of responsibility but he felt the department did all it could at the time.
During the first of three days of evidence being given by Lord Clarke this week, lead counsel Jenni Richards QC asked: “If things were done by the department that either should not have been done or could have been done better… does the minister of state or the secretary of state not bear some responsibility?”
Lord Clarke said: “Yes. It is greatly regrettable if the department doesn’t do (what it should). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say ‘It wasn’t me guv’. I don’t think the department did anything wrong. I’ve never heard anybody suggest anything that in the real world that a minister or a civil servant might have done that would have prevented it.
“Had we taken the step we now know would have saved lives (suspended use of imported blood products) we’d have been treated with outrage by the Haemophilia Society and most haemophiliacs by denying them their Factor VIII. There just wasn’t the evidence to justify that.”
Families who were in the room of the inquiry, at Fleetbank House in London, reacted with fury earlier in response to a comment made by Lord Clarke.
Ms Richards had said the inquiry had heard from patients, families and clinicians of victims who painted a “fairly overwhelming picture” of the risks of taking Factor VIII not being drawn to their attention.
Lord Clarke said: “Well, they must have been fairly switched off,” which prompted shock and cries from the audience. He continued: “You’re asking them what they knew 40 years ago in a particular date in 1983.”
The former minister added that the government was concerned about the reactions from the public at the time, adding: “There was a tremendous mayhem being kicked up, that’s why we were anxious to present these things carefully and avoid causing an absolute panic.
“There’s no point in raising awareness of health hazards any higher unless you’re also going to suggest what people do about it.”
Ms Richards said the point was to inform patients of the risks so they could make a choice to stop taking the products or take less.
“The consequences of stopping taking Factor VIII were very serious for them,” Lord Clarke added. “Had we banned taking imported Factor VIII, we’d have been facing campaigns as vehement as the ones we do now, but on the other side… because at that stage there were very few cases of anybody actually dying.”
He added he agreed patients should be told the risks of treatment.
Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8, a campaign group for victims and families in the scandal, said: “Lord Clarke has shown a grotesque approach all day, but to suggest the victims or families themselves are at fault is seriously one step too far.
“If the department had been honest about the risks they knew of that we see in the documents, people wouldn’t have died, it’s as simple as that. An apology is in order but Clarke’s arrogance will not permit him to make one.”
The hearing continues.