Adjournment Debate. - Infected Blood Product.

Before calling Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn I wish to advise the House that this matter has been permitted to be raised under the revisedsub judice rule to allay public concern which may have arisen from the various allegations made concerning the matters raised by the Deputy. Members should be aware that the matters before us relate to issues which are currently seized by the courts and which have yet to be determined. This House is not a court, and I am asking Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Shea, to take due account of the sensitivity of the issues involved and not to take advantage of the generosity of the Chair in permitting these matters to be raised on the Adjournment. I wish to remind Members that under paragraph (3) of the revised sub judice rule a matter should not be raised in such an overt manner as to appear to be an attempt by the Oireachtas to encroach on the functions of the courts or the Judiciary.

The Chair may rest assured that I will not do anything to encroach on the courts in this matter.

Since the hepatitis C scandal began, I have always maintained that there has never been as serious a scandal in the history of the State. It was so serious because a State board, the Blood Transfusion Service Board, was the guilty party.

A body that was established by the State to maintain people's health through supplying blood and blood products had infected as many as 1,800 people with a potentially life-threatening disease. That seemed to be the worst possible thing that could happen in any State agency.

Initially I thought the scandal was a simple case of misjudgment by the Blood Transfusion Service Board, but following revelations in recent days in the High Court, I now believe there is clear evidence of negligence. I will go further and say that there appears to have been absolute recklessness at play, and I also believe there has been a massive cover-up of that recklessness.

I wish to place on the record of the House information contained in affidavits presented to the High Court. The information has not been disputed by the State's legal team which was present in the High Court yesterday.

In the affidavits, it is stated:

In 1976 and 1977 the first Defendant (BTSB) used plasma from a female plasma exchange patient who to the knowledge of the first Defendant (BTSB) had been clincially diagnosed as suffering from infective hepatitis and had become jaundiced... The plasma of the exchange donor was used without her knowledge and consent for the production of Anti-D Immunoglobulin and without the knowledge and consent of the person or persons in the hospital who were conducting her plasma exchange treatment and without the knowledge of her treating clinician under whose care she was receiving the said treatment.

Further the first Defendant (BTSB) knew since in or about the month of November 1976 that a donor to the batch of Anti-D Immunoglobulin Number 250 which was administered to the Plaintiff was then in November and December 1976 diagnosed as suffering from infective hepatitis.

As many as six tests showed that the female plasma exchange patient was suffering from infective hepatitis. There tests were clearly marked as having been seen by the Blood Transfusion Service Board. Yet, when an investigation was carried out by an expert group which investigated the hepatitis C controversy in 1994, the BTSB said:

Blood donors with a history of jaundice not related to infectious causes could be accepted as donors. However, if the jaundice was defined as being due to an infectious origin and thus potentially hepatitis B, the donation would not be accepted.

This information raises a number of serious questions. Since the documents were found in files at the BTSB, they can hardly be false. I also remind the House of a statement the Minister made to the House during Question Time on 13 March last:

Whatever the criticisms of the Blood Transfusion Services Board, its records were accurate. They stood up to real scrutiny when one had to trace a donation of blood through different transfusions given.

Why was this information about the tests not made known to the expert group which investigated the hepatitis C controversy? Why were the documents not uncovered then or brought to the attention of the group? Was the group deliberately misled?

Did the Minister or his Department ask the BTSB if the donor's tests had all been clear or if the donor had infective hepatitis? When did the Minister or his Department seek this information? Did the Minister or the Department ever seek or examine documentation from the BTSB? How otherwise did the Minister know their records stood up to scrutiny?

This new information also raises the most serious questions about the Minister's tribunal. Are victims appearing before this tribunal in false circumstances? Those appearing are prohibited from seeking damages for negligence. Awards are made only on anex gratia basis and do not take account of compensation for aggravated or punitive damages. Surely the terms of reference establishing the tribunal are fundamentally undermined given this new information? What is the status now of the ad hoc tribunal?

On many occasions I have asked why the Government has been so keen to send the victims of this scandal to a tribunal that even before now appeared to be fundamentally flawed. I wish to again ask that now. Why were the Minister and the Government willing to push people into the tribunal at any cost? There are many examples, most notably a letter dated 25 July from the Chief State Solicitor's office signed by Michael A. Buckley which stated:

If, despite the Scheme of Compensation, any of your clients are advised to ignore the Tribunal and to pursue litigation, and any such clients choose to accept such advice, any resulting litigation will be fully defended by the State, if necessary to the Supreme Court.

That is interesting, because it means that even before the court hearing the State was saying it would appeal the High Court's decision if it was not in its favour. This whole situation smacks of a huge cover-up. There are serious questions to be answered by the Blood Transfusion Service Board, the Department of Health, the Minister for Health, the Attorney General, the Chief State Solicitor and the Government.

I am glad to have the opportunity to clarify the issues raised by the Deputy and refute any suggestion that the Expert Group on the Blood Transfusion Service Board was not given the full information in this matter. I refer the Deputy to the report of the Expert Group on the Blood Transfusion Service Board in this regard and in particular to paragraphs 3.13 to 3.16, which deal with the infection of the anti-D product with hepatitis C. I also refer the Deputy to paragraphs 3.33, 3.34, 3.35, 3.59, 3.60, 3.62 and 3.63 of the report which is an analysis of the circumstances surrounding the infection of the anti-D product. I suggest that appendix 3.1 on pages 49 and 50 should be closely read by the Deputy. These paragraphs and appendix 3.1 should of course be read in the context of the expert group report as a whole.

It is obvious from the information in the report that the expert group, which consisted of a microbiologist and a professor of haematology with an independent chairman, was informed by the Blood Transfusion Service Board that the donor in question was clinically diagnosed as having infective hepatitis in 1976. As a result of this clinical diagnosis, the Blood Transfusion Service Board ceased using her plasma for the anti-D programme. Samples of the patient's plasma were sent to Middlesex Hospital at University of London in November 1976 to ensure that all relevant tests available at that time were carried out. The samples tested negative. In 1976 there was no test for hepatitis C available and it was not until 1989 the hepatitis C virus was described. Adhering to normal practice, Middlesex Hospital retained samples for additional testing if and when more advanced tests became available.

It is therefore clear from the report that the expert group on the Blood Transfusion Service Board was made aware of the diagnosis of the female plasma donor and that this information is not a new revelation as indicated by Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn. I do not wish to comment further on this issue as it is inappropriate for me to do so, since this matter is at issue in proceedings before the High Court.

I take this opportunity to say that 26 cases have been heard to date by the compensation tribunal. A further 28 cases have been listed for hearing from 15 April to 2 May 1996 and a total of 264 applications have been received by the tribunal.

The issue being debated has no implications for the compensation tribunal.