Decades after Canada's tainted blood inquiry, the U.K. grapples with its own

Decades after Canada's tainted blood inquiry, the U.K. grapples with its own
As It Happens7:14Decades after Canada's tainted blood inquiry, the U.K. grapples with its own

For years, Jason Evans says people treated him like he was "crazy and a conspiracy theorist" when he talked about the contaminated blood scandal that killed his father.

But this week, a U.K. public inquiry confirmed what he and his fellow advocates have been saying for decades — that negligent doctors and civil servants exposed tens of thousands of people to HIV- and hepatitis-infected blood for decades, and that successive governments covered it up. 

"It's so difficult for members of the public who haven't been touched by this scandal to truly appreciate what it's like … to have AIDS associated with your family, but also for that to be denied at a government level for decades," the Coventry, England man told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"This week, we were finally told, 'Oh, actually, you were right all along.'"

But the fight isn't over, says Evans, who founded Factor 8, an advocacy group for victims and families affected by the scandal. 

He says he and his fellow campaigners are still sorting out the details of a new government compensation program for victims, and how a newly announced federal election could affect its implementation. 

Thousands died from infected blood 

On Monday, U.K. inquiry chair Brian Langstaff issued his report. It found that 30,000 people received infected blood and blood products in the 1970s and 1980s from Britain's state-funded National Health Service, and 3,000 of them died.

Among them was Evans' father, Jonathan, who died in 1993 from AIDS after contracting both HIV and hepatitis C from a blood product used to treat his haemophilia. Evans was just four years old at the time.

Evans' father was adopted. After his death, he says he tracked down his father's biological family, only to learn his dad's brother also had haemophilia and died after contracting HIV and hepititis C from a blood product.

"As a child, as a teenager, I felt a lot more sadness and a lot more depression because of what has happened," Evans said.

"But I think, particularly into my mid-20s, that really did transform into a kind of calm anger and determination to want to get to the truth and to expose the scandal for what it was."

Two women stand outside in a crowd, crying and holding their hands over their faces.
Infected blood campaigners gather in London's Parliament Square, ahead of the publication the U.K. blood scandal inquiry. (Aaron Chown/PA/The Associated Press)

Langstaff found the U.K. lagged behind many developed countries in introducing rigorous screening of blood products and blood donor selection.

What's more, he said the government hid the truth to "save face and to save expense."

"This disaster was not an accident," Langstaff said Monday, garnering a standing ovation from campaigners.

"The infections happened because those in authority — doctors, the blood services and successive governments — did not put patient safety first."

The inquiry began in 2017, decades after many other countries impacted by contaminated blood had launched their investigations, issued apologies, and paid out compensation. 

A 1993 Canadian inquiry, led by Justice Horace Krever, blamed the lack of a national blood plan for the infection of some 30,000 people in Canada with hepatitis C, and more than 2,000 with HIV. 

Canada initially offered financial compensation for those who had contracted HIV through contaminated blood, while those who contracted hepatitis C had to fight for compensation in court.

That inquiry was followed by criminal charges against officials at the Canadian Red Cross, Health Canada and the pharmaceutical industry. The Red Cross pleaded guilty in 2005 to distributing a contaminated product.

"The Krever Inquiry … was a huge inspiration to show what could be achieved when you do go after and pursue the truth," Evans said. 

Report 'should shake our nation to its core': Sunak

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reacted to the Langstaff report by calling Monday "a day of shame for the British state."

"I want to make a wholehearted unequivocal apology for this terrible injustice," he told parliament. "The result of this inquiry should shake our nation to its core."

On Tuesday, Cabinet Office Minister John Glen promised a "comprehensive compensation" plan for victims and their families would be up and running, ideally by the end of the year. 

He said the 4,000 blood scandal victims who received payments of £100,000 ($172,350 Cdn) from the government in 2022 will receive second interim payments of up to £210,000 ($361,935 Cdn) within the next 90 days.

Compensation will also be made available to victims' families under the new plan, Glen said, but did not say how much or when.

A man in a suit gestures at a microphone
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak apologized for his country's role in the blood scandal and promised financial compensation for victims. (Jordan Pettitt/Reuters)

Evans, meanwhile, says he worries that a newly announced federal election this summer could jeopardize the plan's implementation.

"This is an absolute roller-coaster of a week for all of us," he said. "Just as we thought the fight might be coming to an end, it may well just be beginning the next phase."

But at the very least, he says he takes comfort in knowing that the truth is out there, and politicians and journalists no longer regard him with skepticism when he tells his story.

"Regardless of the work to be done now, a massive weight has been lifted off my shoulders because now we're always going to be believed," he said.