A bloody disgrace

Published by The Daily Mail (July 29th, 2021)

The Ken Clarke brand of politics — his straight-talking and dis-hevelled style —has, for many decades, provided a welcome relief from Westminster artifice and fakery.

But for the past two days this portly peer has displayed a very different persona as he has squirmed under interrogation at the Infected Blood Inquiry, disdainful of proceedings and complaining of his ‘exasperation’ at ‘pointless’ and ‘irrelevant’ questions.

Bear in mind that this belated investigation is probing the worst treatment disaster in NHS history, a shameful saga of systemic incompetence, negligence and suspected cover-up that involved a massacre of innocents.

Almost 3,000 haemophiliacs have died after being treated with blood products — infected with hepatitis C and HIV among other contaminants — supposed to enhance their lives in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many more were left devastated, facing the lifelong consequences of such diseases.

Lord Clarke, who spent two stints at the Department of Health during Margaret Thatcher’s long reign, is regarded by campaigners as a central figure in this saga.

Yet there he sits, glowering from behind his spectacles, tie askew over his plump belly, as lawyers for the victims try to pin down the facts over the shocking sequence of events that still stain our Health Service and sparked so much grief.

Clarke has sneered at ‘absurd tabloid spin’, indulged in legalistic semantics over the meaning of departmental minutes and arrogantly insists that it is ‘wasting time’ to expect him to recall precise events from his time in office.

At one point he asked why lawyers needed to explore ‘such meticulous detail through who said what when?’

Later he complained about the ‘tedious’ detail, then whinged that ‘this really is an extraordinary process and it is going at a torturous rate’. It is sad to see a politician renowned for his common touch seem so pompous, so patronising and so utterly devoid of compassion for all those individuals and families who have suffered so much in this grotesque example of state failure.

Clarke was right on one point, however: this judge-led inquiry comes a disgracefully long time after the events under examination — not least since there were clear warning signs from abroad early on in the crisis and Britain’s response was fatally slow.

Yet when this tetchy witness was asked if he had considered an inquiry while serving as Secretary of State for Health (1988-1990), the answer was no — accompanied by more self-justification and waffling.

This was, for many years, Britain’s forgotten scandal. The roots stretch back almost half a century to when the NHS began importing from the U.S. a blood-clotting agent made from pooled blood taken from tens of thousands of donors.

The use of this coagulant from 1972 helped improve lives for haemophiliacs since their genetic condition — caused by the lack of a key blood-clotting protein — meant even a mild scrape or minor knock can cause serious bleeding.

But as demand surged, Britain and other countries began importing supplies that used blood harvested from high-risk paid donors — including drug addicts, prisoners and prostitutes whose lifestyle made them more vulnerable to disease.

This cavalier practice sparked what has been called ‘the haemophilia holocaust’, which led to big corporate payouts in the U.S. and the conviction of health officials in Canada and Japan. In France, ministers were prosecuted for manslaughter and several officials jailed.

Britain was lethally blasé as evidence of the dangers started to emerge — with 16 Western countries moving faster to start screening the blood products for hepatitis C. The scale of suffering goes far beyond the fatalities. Many victims were left unable to work and forced into financial hardship.

Scores more needed liver transplants or regular dialysis. Some people inadvertently infected their partners and children. This issue is close to my own heart since I had a related blood disorder as a child and spent days in haematology units alongside haemophiliacs, and I have campaigned on these issues as a journalist for more than a decade.

The first case I highlighted was a boy who died aged seven, his disease-wracked body weighing less than a stone. Since haemophilia is a hereditary condition, some families suffered unimaginable pain; one Scottish interviewee told me of seeing three family members die.

Four years ago, Ade Goodyear, the fourth boy in his family born with the disease, described how he was just one of 17 survivors from 89 boys who attended a specialist boarding school in Hampshire over the decade from 1975. The other 72 children attending Treloar College had all died, many barely reaching adulthood.

And yet Ken Clarke feels he can act in a dismissive manner when questioned by an official inquiry finally taking place into these hideous events.

Clarke was appointed Minister of State at the Department of Health in March 1982. Within months, U.S. health authorities were warning about deaths among haemophiliacs using untreated (not subjected to heat treatment to destroy contaminants) blood products — and the following year, they banned their sale.

Britain carried on buying them — despite the fact that it is illegal to pay blood donors in this country on safety grounds.

In late 1983, British haemophiliacs began being diagnosed with the Aids virus HIV — a disease surrounded by appalling stigma at the time, which increased the anguish. At this point, officials here also started calling for urgent withdrawal of the U.S.-made products.

Yet in November that year, Clarke told MPs ‘there is no conclusive evidence Aids is transmitted by blood products’.

When he was asked at the inquiry about his failure to publicly acknowledge a likely connection, he repeated a mantra that he was acting on official advice, adding that it was easy to be wise with hindsight.

The Government continued to insist there was no ‘conclusive’ proof of a link — and to permit use of these infected treatments in the NHS in England — until late 1985 when they were replaced by heat-treated products.

Yet it has since emerged that in March that year an official in Clarke’s department had weighed up the cost benefits of deceased haemophiliacs in an internal memo.

‘The maintenance of the life of a haemophiliac is itself expensive, and I am very much afraid those who are already doomed will generate savings which more than cover the cost of testing blood donations,’ he wrote with astonishing callousness.

Clarke, who moved on from the health job six months later, returned to serve as Secretary of State for three years from 1988 before going on to run four more departments.

In one letter marked ‘private and confidential’ sent in October 1990, shortly before leaving the post, he admitted legal cases against them were ‘very strong’ and ‘straightforward medical negligence’, yet publicly he insisted the Government was not legally liable over what he termed ‘an appalling tragedy’.

So is it any wonder those carrying on the long fight over such a tragic saga, which has seen so much official obfuscation along with key documents going mysteriously missing, are left infuriated by Clarke’s insouciance in the face of their suffering?

‘The utter contempt for the inquiry displayed today by Lord Clarke is appalling,’ said Jason Evans, who was four when his father died aged 31 from contaminated blood. ‘Our community has suffered enough.’

He is right. Clarke’s boorish behaviour is one more insult to the many victims of this disturbing scandal. It is — to use the former minister’s own sort of language — a bloody disgrace.

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