Dr Julian Lewis: Mr Deputy Speaker, having come late to the debate because of a clash with a meeting of a parliamentary Committee on which I serve, I am grateful for the indulgence of the Chair in allowing me to make a brief contribution.
I wish to focus on three points. The first is that people are still, even now, long after the event, being discovered to have been infected with contaminated blood; the second is that momentum for a settlement is in danger of being lost; and the third is that the best treatment is not always available for those who have been infected.
I was struck by what the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Tom Clarke) and others said about the debate being a chance to give a voice to individual constituents. I was also struck by the question asked on 10 December of the Deputy Prime Minister, who was standing in for the Prime Minister, by the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Geoffrey Robinson), because he said in that question what he repeated today – that the scandal had reflected badly on successive Governments, possibly going back as far as that of Harold Wilson, if not further. In the context of momentum being lost, he said that the Prime Minister had undertaken in June to look at and rectify the situation. In fact, according to my constituent, Mrs Lesley Hughes, who only a week before he asked his question had got in touch with me about this very issue, the Prime Minister had apparently told one of his own constituents who was affected by this that he hoped to have a resolution within six months. This would have meant the end of the last calendar year.
I said that my first point was that people are still being discovered who were infected long ago, and that is Lesley Hughes’s situation. In 1970, she and her future husband were involved in a very serious road traffic accident in London, and she had to receive no fewer than 44 pints of blood. For many years she knew nothing about the fact that she had been infected, although over those years she had many visits to GPs and hospitals with numerous symptoms of illness, and considerable pain and suffering. Only last year was it finally discovered that she had been infected with hepatitis C by NHS contaminated blood. Her main concern in writing to me initially was that, given that the Prime Minister had said that he hoped to wrap the issue up himself, she was really anxious that we should not get to the general election – which is, after all, scheduled to be about five months after the deadline that the Prime Minister had set himself – without reaching a resolution.
Geoffrey Robinson: I am not sure that the exact undertaking that the Prime Minister gave is recorded anywhere, but it is recorded in exactly those terms by my constituent, Joseph Peaty, as well. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, though, that the impression was left that the Prime Minister would do his very best to get a settlement by the end of the year? We are past that deadline now. Does he agree that, irrespective of the reports being compiled, we do now have the means necessary to settle the issue, and that is what the Prime Minister should try to do?
Dr Lewis: That is exactly my view, and for that reason I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health, drawing attention to the matter. I received a reply dated 12 January from the Minister who will reply to this debate. Of course she was sympathetic in the terms that she used, but the important part of her letter was the conclusion, which was that
“this issue is being looked at very seriously, and…an announcement will be made to affected individuals and MPs once work has been concluded.”
My simple question to the Minister is, when will that work be concluded, and will she and the Prime Minister undertake to get this work concluded, on behalf of my constituent and many others, before this Parliament comes to an end? Otherwise, we are back to square one – a cycle which I am sure has been repeated over and over again.
Finally, I said that I would mention the other point about how the best treatment is not always available. I understand from Lesley, whom I have not met yet but whom I believe to be present with her husband today, and whom I hope to meet after the debate, that there are problems with the fact that many people suffering from infection are offered the older interferon and ribavirin-based treatment, and that not everybody can tolerate that, particularly as it takes a long time to clear the system, and particularly if they are people who are at a later stage of their life.
If the Minister cannot answer today, will she perhaps write to me later about the situation of patients in that position? Kinder and more effective treatments are available, but are not always sanctioned for reasons of cost either by NICE or by individual health trusts. I wish to give others the opportunity to speak, but once again I thank my constituent for her bravery in allowing me to tell her story and attribute it to her, and I thank the House for its indulgence in allowing me to contribute to the debate at such a late stage.