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.
After his role as health minister, Lord Clarke was later made health secretary from 1988 to 1990.
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 the second half of the session, the inquiry heard about a blood donation leaflet circulated to the public which Lord Clarke was involved in.
The leaflet, first conceived in 1983, was aimed at trying to “discourage” those who were highly at risk of contracting Aids to not donate blood to prevent further spread of the disease.
Minutes displayed and read out to the inquiry showed Lord Clarke attending several meetings involving the leaflet, discussing its content and giving feedback on how it should be distributed.
Asked why he had got involved, Lord Clarke told the inquiry it was “to avoid panic getting out”.
He added: “I was particularly concerned about anything that put off people volunteering to be blood donors, and anything that caused patients to be reluctant to take blood transfusions. Also, as a secondary consideration, I didn’t want to feed homophobia. That is the only reason why I intervened.”
During the presentation of documents, Lord Clarke appeared to become irritated with the level of detail being questioned by Ms Richards, at one point branding them “pointless”.
It prompted chairman Sir Brian Langstaff to intervene, and state that it was up for him to “ultimately determine” what questions were relevant.
In 1972, the UK approved a new version of Factor VIII, a blood clotting protein which helps prevent bleeds, 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.