HL Deb 26 March 2001 vol 624 cc3-5

2.40 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What new help they are considering for people with haemophilia who have been infected with life-threatening illnesses by contaminated National Health Service blood products.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, in England all new haemophilia patients and children under 16 are treated with recombinant clotting factors. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland provide, or are in the process of providing, recombinant clotting factors for all haemophilia patients. The Government are currently considering whether all adult haemophilia patients in England should also be treated with recombinant clotting factors when sufficient supplies are available.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. As he knows, this Question is about what doctors of the highest distinction have described as "the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS". Is my noble friend also aware of the High Court's landmark ruling today that the National Blood Authority was negligent in supplying blood contaminated with hepatitis C and has awarded significant compensation? Will the unmistakable logic of that ruling now be applied to haemophilia patients given hepatitis C by contaminated NHS blood products?

Moreover, is it not cruelly unfair to deny safer recombinant blood products to English patients with haemophilia aged over 16 when there is now no such restriction in Scotland and Wales? Does not this take the "N" out of NHS?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to my noble friend's work for the cause of those throughout the United Kingdom suffering from haemophilia. I congratulate him on his role as president of the Haemophilia Society. I am sure that it could have no finer advocate.

The case referred to was brought by a number of claimants infected by hepatitis C through blood transfusions against the National Blood Authority under the consumer protection legislation of 1988. The judgment is about 350 pages long and very detailed. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further until the details of the judgment have been fully assessed.

My noble friend referred to the availability of recombinant treatment in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Recombinant treatment is currently available to new patients, those under 16 years of age, and patients outside those categories where prescribed. Not all haemophiliacs may want recombinant treatment. However, the Government are considering whether all haemophiliacs should be treated with recombinant clotting factors. We realise that there is a shortage and the Government are looking for additional suppliers.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, haemophiliacs have little confidence in conventional blood products. What are the Government doing to tackle the serious shortage of the recombinant factor? When will the Government consider whether haemophiliacs in England above the age of 16 will be able to have recombinant factors?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, there is no evidence that recombinant factors are safer than plasma-based products. However, discussions on recombinant factors are ongoing. The Government are currently considering whether all adult haemophiliacs in England should be treated with the recombinant factor. It is an ongoing process. As soon as the Government have arrived at a decision they will inform those concerned.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Minister states that it is an ongoing process. I raised the matter in 1997 so it has been ongoing for a long time. What does the noble Lord mean when he states that there is no evidence that the recombinant factor is safer? Is it not correct that the recombinant factor is artificially produced and, therefore, cannot carry human blood contamination? How many haemophiliacs have died from HIV/AIDS and how many are currently diagnosed as having the condition?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, the noble Baroness poses a number of issues. I cannot respond in the detail that she may seek. The noble Baroness raised the issue as far back as 1997. Indeed, it was raised before that period. It has been a lengthy process. Like their predecessors, the Government decided that patients under 16—their parents were obviously worried about them—would have the recombinant factors afforded to them. Where it is prescribed, the treatment will be given. The Government are still considering whether to extend supply to all haemophiliacs in Britain. As soon as a decision is made, I am sure that the noble Baroness and this House will be informed.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, does the Minister agree that unlike earlier preparations such as Hemophil, which were derived from human blood products, the recombinant preparation is not made from human blood but is based upon genetically-produced factor VIII? Hence, it cannot in any circumstances transmit viral infection to those who receive it.. In view of the Government's commitment to reducing the lottery of postcode prescribing in the National Health Service, would it not be appropriate rapidly to make this preparation available to all patients with haemophilia in England, of whatever age?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I do not question the noble Lord's interpretation of the recombinant factors. Indeed, I agree with what he said in that respect.

Prescribing recombinant factor VIII or IX for everyone is under consideration at present. However, some may not wish to have treatment with the recombinant factor. Supplies are not adequate at present to prescribe the recombinant factor for everyone concerned. The Government seek to ensure that resources are made available. As matters develop, they will be able to make a decision on the issue.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the Minister gave a full answer to part of the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, but he said nothing about those who have been infected with life-threatening illnesses. What are the Government doing for those who have been infected with hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS? Are they considering compensation for such people, or at least special provision for their current needs?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, the policy on compensation has remained the same for many years. Compensation is paid only when National Health Service staff or those working in the NHS are at fault. Before 1985 it was not possible to make blood products free from hepatitis C in sufficient quantities to treat all haemophiliacs in Britain. There are no reported cases of classical or variant CJD transmitted by blood or blood products. All the evidence suggests that classical CJD is not spread by blood products. It is too soon to detect any potential transmission of variant CJD by that route, although the possibility cannot be ruled out entirely.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should like to pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, which I am not sure that the Minister covered fully. What are the Government doing to address the serious shortage of recombinant products that has arisen in recent days?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, there is a shortage and the Government are seeking additional suppliers. I hope that there will be developments in that respect.