Intended for healthcare professionals


Patient threatens legal action over lack of compensation for hepatitis C contaminated blood

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 15 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4937
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. The BMJ

A man infected with hepatitis C through NHS treatment with contaminated blood is threatening legal action against the government over a new discretionary compensation scheme, which he claims is unlawful.

Lawyers for Alex Smith, 61, have written to Jeremy Hunt, health secretary for England, threatening to go to the High Court unless he makes changes to the scheme to put those with hepatitis C on an equal footing with those infected with HIV through blood.

The dispute has its roots in what was described by the medical peer Robert Winston as “the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.” Thousands of patients, most of them with haemophilia, became infected with HIV and hepatitis C through blood imported from the US in the 1970s and 1980s, much of it bought from high risk donors, such as prisoners. An enquiry in 2009, chaired by former solicitor general and Labour peer Peter Archer, blamed the UK government for taking too long to achieve self sufficiency in blood products.1

Under the current discretionary compensation scheme for England patients with HIV get annual payments, but patients with hepatitis C are only eligible if their disease has progressed to stage 2 (cirrhosis, primary liver cancer, b cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or liver transplant).

The new scheme proposes annual payments of £3500 (€4100; $4600) for those with stage 1, chronic hepatitis C, and £15 500 for those with stage 2 hepatitis C or HIV. Those with both would get £30 500 a year.

The scheme also sets up a special appeals mechanism for those with stage 1 hepatitis C who feel the effects on their health qualify them to ask for their annual payments to be increased from £3500 to £15 500.

Smith’s solicitors, Leigh Day, argue that the scheme is unlawful in discriminating between those with HIV and hepatitis C. They point out that the government itself said in 2011 that the case for greater similarity between payments for HIV and hepatitis C infection was “based on the argument that the impact on quality of life of living with chronic hepatitis C is at least as great as that of living with HIV.”

Rosa Curling, human rights solicitor at Leigh Day, said, “It has been over 18 months since we first wrote to the Department of Health raising our clients’ concerns about the discrimination faced by hepatitis C sufferers as a result of this scheme. Despite the government’s decision to reform the payment scheme, the discrimination we highlighted remains in place, and we believe the proposals for the scheme are unlawful as a result.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said, “The department is more than doubling its annual spend on the scheme for people affected by this tragedy over the next five years, and is therefore able to provide an annual payment to all infected individuals for the first time. This is significantly more than any previous government has been able to provide for those affected by this tragedy.”


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