Patients maimed by infected blood, innocents jailed, lives ruined. We want real justice – not inquiries| Simon Jenkins

How much money should go to those given infected blood in the 1970s and 80s? And how much to the wronged subpost office operators? Such questions surge periodically into the daylight and then subside. Last month it was the subpost office operators’ turn, stirring a burst of public rage. Today, an amendment to a bill demanding expanded compensation for victims of infected blood is expected to pass.

Both cases are heartbreaking. They tell of lives ruined through gross errors by public bodies. Both have been lurking for decades in Whitehall attics, lost in a world of lavish public inquiries and dodged political accountability. Two infected blood inquiries have so far consumed £100m in fees, without challenge or value audit. Legal fees now consume a quarter of the £2.6bn paid by the NHS in 2021-22 to victims of negligence.

Infected blood was initially straightforward. American blood now known to have had a high risk of contamination – from drug addicts and people with sexually transmitted diseases – was bought cheaply by the NHS. Some was used in research on haemophiliac children. It is estimated that 30,000 people were infected, of whom 3,000 later died, mostly after contracting HIV and hepatitis viruses.

Those infected received official income support and, in 2022, a lengthy inquiry under Brian Langstaff suggested that interim compensation of £100,000 be made to them and to bereaved partners of others infected. These payments were made, pending a final settlement including to those “affected as well as infected” by the scandal.

Final settlement was subject to another inquiry by Robert Francis in 2022. It offered eager reading for negligence lawyers and horrors for the Treasury. The “affected” could include siblings, relatives, carers and even friends. It could embrace those experiencing mental harm and “adverse social consequences”. Harm could mean damage to marriage prospects and deprivation of parenthood. The Treasury has leaked that this could run to as much as £22bn.

At this point, the infected blood scandal shares common ground with that of the subpost office operators. We see ministers running for cover, throwing out “judge-led” inquiries to appease all sides. Years pass. Ministers come and go. Political accountability dissolves into the mists of time. The flight from justice into inquiry has become emblematic of British government. The Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday is estimated to have cost £200m, not a penny of which went to the victims (although some did later receive compensation).

Dramatists have proved far more efficient in the pursuit of justice. It took a television series to drag the subpost office operators back into the political arena, and a Richard Norton-Taylor play to breathe life into the morbid – and shockingly unfinished – Grenfell Tower inquiry.

There was no case for stalling compensation to subpost office operators for their outrageous treatment by their bosses – bosses who should be on trial rather than merely shamed by inquiry lawyers. The failures and lessons to be learned by ministers should long ago have been resolved within the parliamentary process. Instead, Whitehall kicked these scandals into touch in the hope they would somehow go away.

In the case of contaminated blood, assessing the rights of all those affected was never going to be easy. The accidents and tragedies of life impact people in different ways. But deciding how to respond is what accountable government is for. Above all, it requires completion. Judge-led inquiries are justice delayed, and that is justice denied.


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