The first witness to speak at the public inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal was given a standing ovation following his emotional testimony where he described being diagnosed with HIV and then losing his brother to Aids.
The brothers were just two of thousands of haemophiliacs and other hospital patients in the 1970s and 1980s who were given blood products infected with hepatitis C and HIV, with around 2,400 people left dead.
It has been called the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.
In an opening statement to the Infected Blood Inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, a former High Court judge who is chairing the inquiry, said he had already read a large number of statements regarding the impact of the scandal, adding that he had read some of them a number of times.
“Some are harrowing; some incredibly moving; and some chillingly factual. All are valuable. There are more to come,” he said.
“For many making a statement has been, and for some it yet will be, an act of bravery, which I would like to acknowledge publicly here and now. It may have stirred up, and may yet stir up, distressing memories.
“I understand some simply cannot bring themselves to make a statement because it is too much.”
He described Tuesday as a “significant” day for the inquiry and added: “At the preliminary hearings I set out the principles that were to guide this inquiry.
“They were, first and foremost, putting people at its heart, UK-wide; being as quick as reasonable thoroughness permits; paying proper respect to a person’s right to be heard; being as open and transparent as it is legally possible to be; being independent of government, and frightened of no-one in the conclusions it draws.”
The first victim to speak was Derek Martindale, who told the inquiry he was a severe haemophiliac who had been infected with HIV and hepatitis C through receiving blood products.
He said he was 23 when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and was given a year to live. Giving evidence supported by his son, Martindale said he had been told not to tell anyone, even his family.
He added: “When you’re young you’re invincible; when you’re 23 you’re generally fit, but then you’re told you have 12 months to live – it’s very hard to comprehend, so there was the fear.
“There was no future, the likelihood of getting married and having children was very unlikely.”
His brother Richard, also a severe haemophiliac, was also diagnosed with HIV.
He told the infected blood inquiry his greatest regret was not being able to support his brother in the months before he died at age 23 in 1990.
“He knew he was dying, he knew he had Aids and that he didn’t have long to live and he just wanted to talk about that, talk about his fears, how scared he was.
“But I couldn’t, it was too close to home for me and I wasn’t there for him, I wasn’t there for him and three months later he died. It was the biggest regret of my life,” Martindale said.
Martindale told the inquiry he became aware he had also been infected with hepatitis C in 1997.
He said there is “still a stigma” associated with HIV and hepatitis C, adding: “I think society needs to move on from that and I hope this helps.”
At the end of Martindale’s evidence, people in the room stood and clapped.
Dr Carole Anne Hill found out in January 2017 that she had hepatitis C, infected as a result of a blood transfusion she was given in 1987.
She had menorrhagia at that time, suffering from heavy periods, more than 30 years ago.
Asked how she heard about her diagnosis, Hill told the inquiry: “By letter, which was half opened and not sealed properly.”
She added: “I was cross about that.”
In her statement, she described the way the diagnosis was communicated as “entirely inappropriate”, the inquiry heard.
She was tested for hepatitis C among tests for other conditions and did not know she was tested for it.
Hill said she wrote a letter about the way she was informed.
“It seemed to me that the patient should be informed in advance of that testing and warned accordingly and would he (he doctor) kindly not tell people by letter in future,” she said.
Earlier Langstaff had begun his statement by commenting on the amount of people who had decided to attend, saying the presence of such numbers demonstrated the importance of this inquiry.
He also thanked the press for attending and called on them to spread the message that those who are struggling with the infections of HIV or hepatitis through blood or blood products are not alone.
“Anything they can do to increase public knowledge of the symptoms, causes – and as so many of you have told me movingly in your witness statements, the consequences of late discovery – of hepatitis C in particular will be of great value to the public, because so many of its symptoms seem to mimic a range of common conditions,” he said.
He also said the inquiry would “put people at its heart” and recognise that people have different perspectives.
Counsel to the inquiry, Jenni Richards QC, said the scale of the inquiry is “unprecedented”.
“It’s been referred to as the biggest public inquiry the United Kingdom has ever undertaken,” she said.
She added that so far the inquiry has received approximately 1,200 witness statements from individuals who who were infected or affected, adding that the inquiry expects to receive at least a further 1,200 statements over the coming months.
Richards said it seems “likely” that there may have been potentially “many thousands of people” who remain unaware that they may have been infected as a result of the receipt of infected blood or infected blood products.
She said NHS England had written to all GPs to warn them to look out for patients who have symptoms of hepatitis C and ask if they had ever received blood products.
After the Infected Blood Inquiry hears from victims in Fleetbank House, central London, similar testimonies will take place over the coming months in Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff.