The first time I heard the words contaminated blood, it was not as the story of a national health scandal that has killed thousands – it was as the story of one man’s loss.
It was Christmas time, another busy week news editing local newspaper the Ham&High and one of the reporters on the team was pitching a story. He had spoken to a man living in poverty because his health had been ruined by the deadly virus hepatitis C. His cooker was bust, his sofa had huge holes in it, he had no electricity or heating. He was angry.
Even worse, the reporter told me, the man had been infected with the killer virus by a blood transfusion given to him by the NHS to save his life following a car crash years before.
It was a great story and we duly splashed on it. But despite the reporter’s valiant efforts to explain the bewildering scope of this awful national scandal, I simply did not clock it. It was decades old, I thought, it must be old news. We moved on.
And then I took on a new job as an investigations journalist months later and my new editor suggested we investigate the contaminated blood scandal. Within weeks, as the team researched a campaigning series of reports, I became increasingly stunned. It is a story involving medical negligence, government cover-ups and big pharma greed on the scale of the thalidomide scandal, yet I had never heard of it. How? Why?
One of the reasons regularly given as to why the contaminated blood scandal has not reached public consciousness in the same way as Hillsborough or Grenfell is that people have been dying slowly, for four decades now. Thousands of men and woman who were given HIV and hepatitis C in contaminated blood products used by the National Health Service have seen their health ravaged. They have lived with quiet dignity, fighting for answers, demanding justice from successive governments.
More than 2,800 have so far died.
It was at this time, three years ago, that I first met Tony Farrugia - who today features in a flagship new short documentary film about the blood scandal launched by HuffPost UK.
In conversations by telephone, Facebook Messenger chats, at protest rallies he told me his family’s story, about his father’s agonising death from AIDS aged 37. Over the next 20 years, two of his uncles would also die. Tony and his twin brother, aged 14, were taken into care at separate care homes after their dad’s death. His father Barry was sectioned due the mental anguish of what had befallen him. Tony told me he found this one of the hardest things to bear. He sent me reams of his dad’s medical records. He invited me to memorial services. He told his family’s devastating story.
Tony is just one of the many incredible people I have interviewed whose lives have been ruined by this disaster. They have had no justice, no truth and no compensation.
The sheer complexity of the blood scandal is bamboozling, it deserves the full public inquiry that finally opened this year after decades of campaigning and will hopefully bring answers.
But at the root of each of the big numbers, behind the complex detail of the scandal, are individual stories of loss. Thousands and thousands of stories of individual loss. Of lives shattered, splintered, and altered by colossal failures to ensure the safety of the very blood that pumps through our veins.