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  • Isa Seedat

Infected Blood Scandal: A Failure of the British State

By Isa Seedat

A calamity and “a catalogue of failures” is how Sir Brian Langstaff, chairman of the Infected Blood Inquiry, described arguably the biggest health scandal in the history of the NHS. 

Although, scandals are nothing new for the British state. Indeed, we often find ourselves in one every few weeks. Be it Grenfell, Hillsborough, Windrush, or the currently ongoing Post Office issues, the British government has a knack for finding itself embroiled in scandal.

On May 20 2024, Sir Brian Langstaff presented his final report of the Infected Blood Inquiry, and it is a damning, but altogether and tragically familiar condemnation of the government.

The Infected Blood Scandal is a microcosm of the wider issues plaguing the British state and this decades-long disgrace must act as a watershed moment for institutional change in the state and its attitude to mistakes. 

The Infected Blood Scandal is a story of chronic negligence, risk-taking, and lies. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, 30,000 British people were infected with HIV or Hepatitis C stemming from NHS procedures. 3000 of those infected have since died.

Sir Brian’s 2,500-page report details how such a tragic series of events was allowed to occur. In his report, he found evidence of what he called Unnecessary risks and an overall lack of care for patient safety. 

For example, despite knowing the risks of transmitting viral infections, the NHS continued to import foreign blood donations, especially from America where it was taken from high-risk individuals such as prisoners. This high-risk blood was then pooled with hundreds of other donors to create medicinal treatments such as Factor 8, a clotting agent administered to patients. 

Britain was not alone. Other countries including France and Japan suffered similar cases of patient infection. Yet, cases in these countries have already been long settled. Why haven’t we followed suit?

Despite the serious nature of this case, an inquiry into what happened was only established in 2017 as government after government sought to push this shameful incident onto future administrations.

Langstaff’s report makes it clear why. 

The report outlines how there was a conceited and deliberate attempt to cover up the incident. In the Health Department, evidence was destroyed while the government continually refused to acknowledge that mistakes were made.

Even more sinister, Langstaff notes how patients were not told the risks of procedures and, unbelievably, in some cases patients were not informed that they had become infected. This led to cases where patients unknowingly infected their partners too.

As Langstaff surmises, “The infections happened because those in authority – doctors, the blood services and successive governments – did not put patient safety first.”

Langstaff has understandably recommended compensation for the victims and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised “Whatever it costs to deliver this scheme, we will pay it”. Roughly £10 billion has been earmarked for compensation but even this huge bill is unlikely to be the hardest bullet for the government to bite. 

Sir Brian also recommended that the government develop a new attitude to incidents, a sort of culture where whistleblowing is encouraged. For a state so entrenched in its ways of obfuscating and avoiding responsibility, this recommendation seems a depressingly far-fetched ideal. 

If the report heralded a “day of shame for the British state”, as Mr Sunak described, then let it also be a catalyst for institutional change. To prevent scandals of this nature from occurring in the future, a new culture of accountability and openness is needed in the state and its various branches.

Such change might help prevent the expensive bills levied on the government when scandals are inevitably revealed. But more importantly, change is owed to the citizens of the UK who rightfully expect their government to perform its duty truthfully and morally. 



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