Blood transfusion boss apologises over scandal

Marc Turner
Marc Turner said the transfusion service should have done better [BBC]

The head of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS) has apologised to the thousands of victims in Scotland who were infected by HIV or Hepatitis C through NHS blood products.

A UK-wide inquiry into the scandal began taking evidence in 2019 and will publish its final report on Monday.

Ahead of publication, Prof Marc Turner acknowledged that in the 1970s and 80s, there were areas around donor selection and delays in the introduction of screening where SNBTS "could and should have done better".

He said he was certain "these types of mistakes won’t happen again".

In Scotland, the vast majority of infections came from Scottish Blood donations [BBC]

About 3,000 people in Scotland were given blood infected with HIV or Hepatitis C in the 1970s and 80s.

Many became infected after receiving blood transfusions on the NHS, others through treatment for haemophilia.

Hundreds have now died.

Their families, and those who have survived to see the end of this inquiry, hope it will give them some closure after years of stigma, trauma, and living with loss.

They still have questions about who was responsible, whether there was a cover up, and how compensation might be paid.

When head of the inquiry Sir Brian Langstaff unveils his answers in London next week, it will be the end of a long journey, but for Scotland, the road has taken a different route from the rest of the UK.

Scotland’s Blood Supply

In Scotland, the vast majority of infections came from Scottish blood donations.

In the 1970s and 80s, the country was largely self-sufficient in blood products.

In addition to having adequate local donations for the populations needs, the Protein Fractionation Centre in Edinburgh had the capacity to process blood plasma to manufacture treatments for haemophilia or certain forms of immune deficiencies.

Unlike other parts of the UK, there was no need to rely on commercial products from America.

The Scottish Blood Transfusion Service has been criticised for not adequately screening donors and for taking donations from prisoners.

With a higher population of intravenous drug users, they were known to be at greater risk of infection.

The SNBTS continued this practice as late as March 1984, a year after England stopped and two years after warnings from the Medicines Inspectorate.

There were also delays to the introduction of screening for hepatitis C that could have prevented some infections.

blood products
There have been significant advances in testing and screening since the 1980s [BBC]

Prof Turner accepted the SNBTS made mistakes on all of these fronts.

He said: "It was very clearly a tragic set of circumstances.

"I think It was a difficult time because there were emergent infections and at times there was considerable uncertainty.

"I think that there are some ways in which SNBTS performed in a satisfactory manner but clearly other ways in which we did not and for those failings we take responsibility, we apologise to the people affected and we will take all possible steps to make sure similar things cannot happen again."

Prof Turner said donor selection criteria were much more stringent now, with significant advances in testing and screening.

He said there continued to be a pressing need for blood donations which save lives.

Yorkhill Children’s Hospital

Although most blood transfusions in Scotland were from Scottish donations, the exception was Yorkhill hospital in Glasgow where children were treated for haemophilia.

They regularly received plasma products sourced from paid donors in the United States that were known to be high risk.

Most of the children were infected with HIV or hepatitis C by the age of five.

Some went on to develop AIDS.

Their families want to know why clinicians chose American products ahead of Scottish blood and why there were delays to the introduction of heat treatment.

The Campaigner

Bill Wright
Bill Wright contracted Hepatitis C from concentrated blood products [BBC]

For almost 40 years, Bill Wright has lived with the consequences of being infected by concentrated blood products.

In 1986, he was given blood to help clotting after a minor injury.

Recommendations were already in place to avoid this treatment for mild haemophiliacs like Bill, but the junior doctor treating him feared the risks of internal bleeding. A week later he was told he had hepatitis C.

“I have gone through very angry periods but I have learned over the years that it’s been incredibly destructive," Bill said.

"Anger, frustrations, confusion, that element has wrecked people’s lives, almost as much as the physical effects."

Bill went on to become chair of Haemophilia Scotland and has campaigned on Scottish infected blood for more than 30 years.

However, he cannot travel to London for the publication of the long-awaited inquiry report as he is awaiting a liver transplant.

He was diagnosed with liver cancer in March this year, a direct result of the infection he was given by the NHS.

The First Public Inquiry

Sir Brian Langstaff 's inquiry has been following in the footsteps of Scottish judge Lord Penrose, who looked into the issue when Scotland became the first part of the UK to commission a public inquiry into infected blood.

It had been a key election pledge of the SNP government when they came to power in 2007.

But the Penrose inquiry lacked the full statutory powers to compel witnesses from outside of Scotland to give evidence, and until 1999 health policy had been controlled by Westminster.

In the end, after six years of investigation, at a cost of about £12m, the report made just one recommendation – that anybody who had a blood transfusion before 1991 should be screened for hepatitis C.

It was condemned as a "whitewash" by many of those affected. Some set fire to copies of it in the street.

Bill Wright remembers the publication of the report on 13 November 2015 as a "pretty tough experience".

"We’d campaigned for at least eight years and it was a disappointment," he said.

"People were shouting, they were angry but it did lead to better things in Scotland.

"We developed a better support scheme than had existed in the rest of the UK and there was a tiny wee light at the end of the tunnel."

Lord Penrose
Scottish judge Lord Penrose's inquiry was condemned as a "whitewash" by many of those affected [BBC]

Bill said Sir Brian’s public inquiry had taken a very different approach.

Those infected or affected have been given a voice right at the centre of this investigation.

Already it has led to interim compensation payments of £100,000, with further compensation recommendations set to be accepted by the UK government.

He says there are still outstanding questions, but he says he hopes it will be a time where all of those affected can feel some closure.

Bill said: "I actually feel pretty calm at the moment and one of the things I earnestly want for everyone involved in all of this is that they are able to find a place of peace and they can feel calm and they no longer feel that they have been cheated."