Infected Blood Inquiry: I was 'not responsible' for blood products as minister, Lord Ken Clarke says

Ken Clarke appears at the Infected Blood Inquiry

Ex-minister Ken Clarke has said he was "not responsible" for blood products during his time as health minister in the early days of the infected blood scandal, an inquiry has heard.

Lord Clarke, who held the position of health minister from 1982 to 1985, said the emerging controversy surrounding the blood products was something that "hardly ever came across my desk" as he was dealing with policies such as closing "old Victorian asylums" or getting rid of “old geriatric hospitals”.

He is appearing in front of the Infected Blood Inquiry this week to give evidence surrounding the scandal, which emerged in the 1980s and saw thousands diagnosed with HIV/Aids and/or hepatitis after receiving blood product treatments for haemophilia.

The illness, which has no cure, impairs the body’s ability to make blood clots.

In 1983, Mr Clarke, then a health minister, denied any threat was posed by Factor VIII.

On November 14, 1983, he told parliament: "There is no conclusive evidence that Aids is transmitted by blood products."

The inquiry was requested by former Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017 Credit: Infected Blood Inquiry/PA

However, documents discovered at the national archives by Jason Evans, whose father died after receiving contaminated blood and who founded the Factor 8 campaign, suggest the government did know about the link.

After his role as health minister, Lord Clarke was later made the health secretary from 1988 to 1990.

In a letter dated May 4, 1983, Hugh Rossi, then a minister in the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), told a constituent: "It is an extremely worrying situation, particularly as I read in the weekend press that the disease is now being transmitted by blood plasma which has been imported from the United States."

HIV screening for all blood donated in the UK only began on October 14, 1985.

Rossi’s letter was considered damaging enough for the government to seek to prevent its release in 1990 during legal action over the scandal, by which time Clarke was health secretary.

In another letter uncovered by Evans, dated March 22, 1990, a Department of Health official wrote to government lawyers saying it wanted to withhold Rossi’s letter, despite admitting the legal basis for doing so was "questionable".

Appearing at the inquiry on Tuesday, he told lead counsel Jenni Richards QC: "As the tragedy with the haemophiliacs developed, I was aware it was there. From time to time, usually on my own instigation, I got on the edge of it.

"I didn’t call meetings on it. I was never the minister directly responsible for blood products. I was never asked to take a decision on blood products.

"I never intervened to take a decision on blood products. I did intervene or get involved in discussions a bit when I wanted to be reassured."

He added: "When I arrived (as health minister), the idea that blood products was a very big part of the department’s activity is simply not true.

"It was a very specialist, usually quiet, harmless, subject and was one of the few areas where we didn’t have controversy and there wasn’t very much for the department to do because the blood transfusion service ran itself."

Later on, Ms Richards asked: "Do you accept that the (health) department and ministers within the department had a responsibility to ensure the treatment being provided through the National Health Service was safe?"

Lord Clarke responded: "Yes, that’s why we have this network of safety of medicines committees, licensing authorities. They have legal power… to make sure you don’t have some eccentric doctor who is prescribing things which are not actually clinically proven or recommended.

"Never does the minister personally start intervening and imposing a personal decision on what treatment the patients (get)."

In 1972, the UK approved a new version of Factor VIII, a blood clotting protein which helps prevent bleeds from happening, to be used to treat haemophilia patients in Britain.

Blood products later began being imported from overseas after the production of Factor VIII in the UK was considered to be insufficient to meet demand.

By 1983, fears had been raised that the blood products contained hepatitis and HIV or Aids.

It was later found that many people with the condition had been given blood products, such as plasma, which were infected with hepatitis and HIV.

The Infected Blood Inquiry, an independent probe into those who were affected by the transfusions, will be hearing evidence from Lord Clarke for three days this week.

The inquiry continues.