A public inquiry will be held into the NHS contaminated blood scandal that left 2,400 people dead, Theresa May has announced.
The Prime Minister revealed the decision to her Cabinet on Tuesday morning, delighting campaigners and families affected by what has been described as “one of the greatest peacetime disasters” to hit the UK.
Thousands of patients - many of them haemophiliacs - died in the 1970s and 1980s after being given tainted blood infected with hepatitis and HIV. A further 2,500 people survived but still suffer from substantial health issues.
Supplies of the clotting agent Factor VIII were imported from the US, some of which turned out to be infected.
Some of the plasma used to make the product is alleged to have come from donors like American prison inmates and drug addicts, who sold their blood for cash.
The PM said: “I’m determined that when you see cases like this, where I think people have suffered injustice, that we do deal with them, that we do ensure that people who have waited far too long, who have been through pain and hardship, are given the answers they deserve.”
No.10 confirmed that it would consult families on the shape of the new probe, which will take the form of either a judge-led public inquiry or a panel similar to that which investigated the Hillsborough disaster.
The campaign group Contaminated Blood Campaign tweeted its response.
The announcement is a victory for former Health Secretary Andy Burnham and others who have spent years campaigning for justice for those killed by the scandal.
Burnham had warned this week that if the Government failed to act he was prepared to go to the police with “serious allegations” from victims that there had been a “cover-up”.
Allegations included claims that medical records had been falsified, patients tested for HIV and Hepatitis C without their knowledge or consent, including those who tested positive.
Burnham said: “This day has taken far too long in coming. People have suffered enough through contaminated blood. They have been let down by all political parties and public bodies.
“It is now incumbent on those organisations to work together to give the families truth, justice and accountability without any further delay or obstruction. It is essential that this inquiry looks at both the original negligence and the widespread cover-up that followed.
“It is also crucial that organisations representing victims are fully consulted on the form, membership and structure of the inquiry. Just as with Hillsborough, there must be a “families first” approach at all times.”
The Haemophilia Society had this week urged ministers to act “swiftly to right this historic wrong”.
It pointed out that many survivors continue to live in poverty, unable to work as careers were cut short due to ill health or to care for loved ones.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “It is a tragedy that has caused immeasurable hardship and pain for all those affected and a full inquiry to establish the truth of what happened is the right course of action to take.
“It is going to be a wide-ranging inquiry.”
Health minister Philip Dunne confirmed the news in an emergency Commons debate on the issue, which had been granted to Labour MP Diana Johnson.
Former Labour Health minister David Owen, now Lord Owen, has campaigned for years for an inquiry.
He told SkyNews: “There is a lot of justification for people thinking this has been covered up for a very long time.”
Owen told the Commons in 1975 that he wanted the NHS to be “self-sufficient” in blood products, but the UK continued to import Factor VIII.
He suggested on Tuesday that cuts were to blame, “because of economies, decisions were taken...” He added: “the whole commercialisation of blood is an absolute scandal.”
Owen complained that his Department of Health ministerial papers “were got rid of”. Another health minister, the late Patrick Jenkin, “was convinced his papers were weeded out” too, he added.
Labour MP Johnson has been leading cross-party calls for an inquiry, collating a letter to the PM from six Opposition party leaders last week.
The six leaders, including Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Democratic Unionist Party’s Nigel Dodds, said in their letter: “Whenever public disasters of this kind take place, Government has a fundamental duty to support those affected in getting the answers they need; to disclose everything they know; and to ensure that officials are called to account for their actions.
“We regret that for many decades, the victims of the contaminated blood scandal have been denied this right.”