Hepatitis C

– in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 13th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Manchester Lord Morris of Manchester Labour 2:52 pm, 13th January 2003

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest—not a financial one—as president of the Haemophilia Society.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what new help they are considering for people infected with hepatitis C by contaminated National Health Service blood products, and for the dependants of those who have since died as a result of their infection.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, we have enormous sympathy with those affected by this tragedy. Sadly, it was not possible at the time to make blood products free from hepatitis C. We do, however, recognise the public health importance of hepatitis C and have published a strategy to improve the effectiveness of prevention, testing and treating services for people with this virus. An action plan to implement the strategy will be produced in the next few months.

Photo of Lord Morris of Manchester Lord Morris of Manchester Labour

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. Is he aware that last month, for the third time, haemophilia patients were notified that NHS blood products they were prescribed trace back to a donor with variant CJD; and that the Department of Health, with no tests for the disease, cannot say whether they have contracted it?

Over 1,000 haemophilia patients have now died from the HIV and hepatitis C viruses transmitted by contaminated NHS blood products—a huge toll for a small and already stricken patient community of only 5,000. Is it not then cruelly unjust to deny those who survive the safer recombinant treatment that would remove their fear of further infection?

Again, is my noble friend aware of the Market Research Bureau's finding that the UK now has the lowest availability of recombinant for haemophilia patients in the developed world?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for his presidency of the society. This has been a tragic event that has occurred in this country. The previous government decided that the general rule should apply in those cases: that there could not be an exception to the rule that compensation or financial help is given only when the NHS or individuals working in it are at fault. The current Government reviewed this decision by the previous government some years ago and decided that they could not move from that position.

So far as concerns recombinant synthetic factors 8 and 9, Ministers are currently considering the case for the provision of recombinant clotting factors and hope to be able to make a decision shortly.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Croy Lord Campbell of Croy Conservative

My Lords, what approximately is the number of people now infected in this way, and the number of their dependants as at present?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, the figures that I have indicate that about 8,000 people are still living who are infected with hepatitis C through blood products and blood transfusion.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the Government please explain to the House the difference in the circumstances of the relatives of people who have died as a result of contracting HIV through no cause of their own, and those of someone who has died of cancer of the liver caused by hepatitis C?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, these are very difficult judgments. I do not think that anyone who has gone into this matter—in the previous government or the current Government—has found making a decision in this area at all easy. At the end of the day, after careful review, we came to the conclusion that we could not make an exception to the compensation rule.

Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench

My Lords, does that mean that there is a lack of conviction about the cost or about the treatment?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, I do not believe that those are the issues that are paramount in considering this matter. There has long been a general rule that compensation is given by the National Health Service only when the service itself or individuals working in it are at fault. In this case, there has been no fault.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative

My Lords, what number of patients in general are suffering from hepatitis C; and is adequate treatment being offered to them, whether or not they are haemophiliacs?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, the current information I have is that the prevalence of chronic hepatitis C infection may be around 0.4 per cent of the general population: that is about 200,000 people in England. Therapies are available for treatment, most notably the combination therapy interferon alpha with Ribavirin. There is also a combination treatment which includes pegolated interferon, which is currently being reviewed by NICE. There is also currently a clinical trial assessing treatment for mild disease. That is due to report later in the year.

Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench

My Lords, I am sorry to take up the time of the House, but I do not follow why the National Health Service has the principle of no compensation unless there is fault; whereas, every year, millions of pounds are handed out to victims of criminal activity—to those who are injured by criminals. In that situation, there is no fault on the part of the Government; in fact, many would say that there is no moral obligation. In this case, there is a strong moral obligation because the NHS has caused the trouble. Will the Minister please explain whether there is some special rule for the NHS; and, if so, what is its justification?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has raised this matter on a number of occasions in your Lordships' House. I believe that the cases are very different and they have been recognised as such both by this Government and by the previous government. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme makes payments to victims of violent crime. The scheme recognises society's sympathy with the victims of such deliberate and malicious acts of violence. I believe that those circumstances are very different from the circumstances in which the NHS provides treatment to patients.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, following on from the previous question, I understood my noble friend to refer to the issue of "fault". Given that, as the Question says, people have been infected,

"by contaminated National Health Service blood products", will the Minister express more clearly how the National Health Service can say that there is no fault when its product has caused the complaint?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, it was possible to eliminate hepatitis C from blood products only in 1985, when heat treatment was introduced. The cases that we are discussing, in which people were infected through blood products, relate to people who were infected before that date.