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Lives could have been saved if blood imports were stopped sooner, inquiry hears

·4-min read

Lives could have been saved if the UK stopped importing blood products prior to 1981, an inquiry has heard.

Lord Norman Fowler, the former health and social security secretary, told the Infected Blood Inquiry that it was not “physically possible” for former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Government to prevent children and adults receiving infected blood products.

Lord Fowler, who spearheaded the “Don’t die of ignorance” Aids campaign in the 1980s and was health secretary from 1981 to 1987, made the comments at the start of his two-day appearance at the inquiry, held at Aldwych House in central London.

The hearing, which resumed this week after a summer break, is being held to investigate how and why men, women and children in the UK received infected blood products, leading to thousands of people contracting HIV, Aids and/or hepatitis during the 1970s and 1980s.

Infected Blood Inquiry
The Infected Blood Inquiry, which recommenced this week, is now being heard at Aldwych House in central London (Adam Seigel and the Infected Blood Inquiry/PA)

A large amount of the infected products were imported from overseas, such as the US, after the UK failed to meet demand from patients, particularly from those with the blood-clotting condition haemophilia.

During his appearance on Tuesday, lead counsel Jenni Richards QC questioned Lord Fowler on his department’s policy on Britain becoming self-sufficient with blood products after the Labour’s health minister Lord David Owen said in January 1975 he wanted Britain to stop importing blood products.

Lord Fowler told the inquiry: “By the time I got there in September 1981, it was too late for me to influence the outcome (of the imports).

“If David Owen’s advice had been taken, and we’d gone for self-sufficiency as a nation, then much of the ensuing tragedy, probably not all of it, but much of it, could have been avoided.

“Had it been taken in 1975/1976, then the outcome would have been different, but it wasn’t taken then.”

Infected Blood Inquiry
The hearing will continue for the rest of the week (Adam Seigel and the Infected Blood Inquiry/PA)

Lord Fowler added that blood began being heat-treated and screened by the Blood Products Laboratory (BPL) from 1985.

“There’s no way that by autumn of 1981, there was anything that I could have done, my government or my department could have done, to influence the outcome because, however you measure BPL and its progress, there is no way it could have been up and running… it just wasn’t possible to do.”

Questioned by Ms Richards as to why Mrs Thatcher did not take quicker action to have blood products treated after she took office in May 1979, Lord Fowler stated he was unsure but believed it was due to financial reasons.

“If you’re controlling public spending, the least popular thing to do is to say ‘I’ve got a new venture to put forward,’” he said, adding that it “wasn’t high on the priority list”.

In a previous inquiry hearing in September 2020, Lord Owen questioned why the Conservative Government introduced a policy of self-sufficiency for blood products from 1982 despite his suggestion to do it years before.

Later on Tuesday, Lord Fowler was questioned over former health minister Lord Ken Clarke’s use of the phrase “there is no conclusive proof that Aids is transmitted by blood products” in 1983.

At an earlier inquiry hearing, Lord Clarke defended his use of the phrase.

Lord Fowler told the inquiry: “I think there is no doubt that it should have had the full version rather more explicitly than it did.

“I have no recollection, however, of any concerns being raised at the time.

“Why didn’t someone say that at the time?

“I think the line did implicitly recognise there was a risk, but I think the department should have spotted this need to reflect the balance of the background note more precisely in the line.”

Lord Fowler said the whole department was “responsible” for the wording but added he did not feel it “would have made as much difference as people appear to be saying it would.”

“Although it [the phrasing] is regrettable, I don’t think it has been crucial in the in the whole story,” he said.

Jason Evans, who is the founder of the Factor 8 campaigning group which represents several families and victims of the scandal, said it was “good to hear” Lord Fowler state the scandal was almost entirely avoidable but added he has “ultimate responsibility for allowing unsafe products to be imported” for several years and “shouldn’t be trying to shy away from that.”

The hearing continues.

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