The announcement of the Contaminated Blood Scandal Inquiry by Theresa May on 11 July 2017 was overwhelmingly welcomed by the thousands of patients and their families who were affected by the medical disaster in the late 1970s and 1980s. Following decades of campaigning, the inquiry is long overdue and shows the immense efforts of campaigners including the Haemophilia Society and Diana Johnson MP.
Official NHS figures suggest that there have been no reported cases of the development of viral infection from blood transfusions since 2005 and bacterial infections since 2009. It is also true that some of the practices which prevailed in the 1980s and contributed to the scandal no longer occur. However, it is important to note that for many the scandal is still part of their everyday life, and for some the damage from infections such as Hepatitis C have only become apparent many years later. To ensure that the public continues to have faith in our health system, the inquiry must be robust and transparent and confirm that lessons have been learnt by both the NHS and Department of Health.
And yet, already, there has been widespread criticism over the role of the Department of Health in overseeing the inquiry given they are implicated in the scandal, and a suggestion that the Department of Health has tried to circumvent the legal representation of victims in its correspondence.
The role of lawyers acting for patients and interested groups will be to ensure the best outcomes for all individuals involved. Lawyers will be the crucial connection between government, victims and their families to ensure the terms of reference of the inquiry are satisfactory and their voices throughout the process are considered and listened to by the inquiry.
Unfortunately, it is also unclear whether Legal Aid will be made available to patients, and as a result a support fund for legal representation is being established. Separate to the inquiry, legal proceedings are already underway to decide on the lawfulness of a previous compensation scheme given the different size in payments by the Government to Hepatitis C sufferers and those suffering from HIV. Payment of compensation is unlikely to be a direct result or objective of the inquiry, but it is possible that it may recommend some sort of support, which is generally considered to have been inadequate.
The inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal will hopefully get to the bottom of what is considered to be one of the most serious medical disasters in British history. The hope of campaigners and those supporting individuals involved is that the victims are finally listened to and supported to get a full understanding of the circumstances around the scandal, what the Department of Health knew at the time and some accountability from responsible parties. The legal representation of the victims will be central to this and the inquiry should be careful to ensure they recognise this to build the trust of victims.