Infected Blood Inquiry hears evidence from Lord David Owen

The Infected Blood Inquiry is an independent inquiry, established by the UK government to look into a wide range of issues relating to infected blood, including how thousands of people came to be given blood containing hepatitis C, and HIV prior to 1991. People infected include those in receipt of blood products, such as people treated for haemophilia, but also those who received ‘whole blood’ transfusions including after suffering injuries in accidents, requiring blood during routine operations and for women who had complications during childbirth. If you are concerned about any issues relating to the Inquiry or hepatitis C, you can call our confidential helpline, which is staffed by people who have had hepatitis C.

Opening the hearings for the first time since they paused February, Sir Brain Langstaff , chair of the Inquiry noted the numbers of people affected by COVID-19 compared to the 71 million living with hepatitis C, 29 million with hepatitis B and 36.9 million with HIV.

He said that he was not trying to minimise the issue of COVID-19 but that “no-one should be in any doubt that this Inquiry is dealing with other viruses also capable of doing serious, lasting damage to society. Those diseases should not be minimised either. They had a significant impact in this country. No-one should underestimate their potential severity; no-one should undervalue the hurt they have caused, and no-one should doubt the importance of what this Inquiry is about.”

Lord Owen, health minister from 1974 to 1976, has previously alleged that maladministration by his former department contributed to the infected blood scandal.

He told the House of Commons in January 1975 that he wanted the NHS to be "self-sufficient as soon as practicable" in the production of blood clotting factors to "stop us being dependent on imports" and has called for an inquiry as to why this promise was not fulfilled,

Products used to treat haemophilia in the UK were made using pooled blood donations from paid donors from overseas are now understood to be the source of infected blood products which were given to people with haemophilia in Britain.

Giving evidence to the Inquiry on Tuesday, Lord Owen said he understood the risks from these pooled blood donations as early as 1970, having read the book called The Gift Relationship and even reviewed it for the New Statesman. The books notes that “a private market in blood entails much greater risks to the recipient of disease, chronic disability and death”. Separately Owen noted that he understood the risks from pooled donations, noting that pooling donations from thousands of donors meant the chance of a product containing virus particles was higher.

Giving evidence, Lord Owen confirmed that he was aware of the risks from blood products “Absolutely. I don't believe that any doctor in the country had not become aware of it.” This was despite the fact that hepatitis C was not well understood at the time.

He also described how, whilst some treatments were understood to carry a potentially higher risk of carrying an infection, these same treatments were often seen as the most effective treatment by clinicians and even by patients.

Referring to decisions by clinicians to use potentially risky treatments he said “I read those papers, I read the choices, I saw it day by day, and it was not in my power, really, certainly not in my -- I think I would say it was not really in my power. It would have been an abuse of my power to have interfered with that decision-making.” The solution he felt at the time was to try and achieve self-sufficiency in blood donations so that the UK was not reliant on more risky blood from overseas, mainly the USA.

Lord Owen said that the pledge for self-sufficiency was originally meant to have been fulfilled by 1979 and “ought not to have been allowed to slip into the 1980s.” Referring to the fact that the aim for self-sufficiency was allowed to slip without being discussed in Parliament he said “I have always said you could not move away from self-sufficiency without going back to Parliament.”

Lord Owen also noted that “some doctors weren't open enough” about the risks from viral hepatitis from blood products but said that he tried to encourage the Department to be ask open as possible about the risks.

“All I decided -- and that was a political decision -- we will have no secrecy about this in the department, we will have no secrecy about this in letters we write to Members of Parliament. At one time I actually say we must put more information out to Members of Parliament. They must face up to these risks because they were getting a lot of questions…”

At the same time Lord Owen was advised not to refer to his concerns about paid blood donors in a statement to Parliament, noting that "public debate cannot, we believe, be of any benefit to the NBTS [National Blood Transfusion Service]."

Concluding his evidence, Lord Owen said that "we have all, as politicians, failed to face up to the fundamental thing, that when things go wrong, have a post mortem." He said that such an episode must not be allowed to happen again.

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