PATIENTS infected with hepatitis C after receiving contaminated blood have been given a £130m package of support from the Government.
Victims of the "tainted blood" scandal will be entitled to increased compensation after fierce lobbying from campaigners, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced yesterday.
Families of patients who have already died after contracting the disease will also be offered pay-outs after what Mr Lansley described as "one of the great tragedies in modern healthcare".
But victims will still not receive the same levels of compensation as received by victims in the Republic of Ireland after the Government ruled such a move would be too expensive.
"Today's announcements cannot remove the pain and distress these individuals and families have suffered over the years," Mr Lansley said.
"But I hope these measures can at least bring some comfort, some consolation and perhaps even some closure for those affected."
The package was unveiled after growing pressure on the Government to compensate those who became ill after receiving contaminated blood in the 1970s and 1980s, some of which came from "skid row" donors such as prison inmates.
Medical expert Lord Winston has branded the scandal "the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS", with 4,670 haemophiliacs infected with hepatitis C, of whom 1,243 were also infected with HIV. Nearly 2,000 have already died.
A two-year privately-funded inquiry into the scandal led by Lord Archer of Sandwell found that commercial interests had taken precedence over public health and said Ministers should apologise to victims, provide financial assistance for those prevented from working, ensure victims could get insurance and offer them benefits not freely available on the NHS, such as free prescription drugs, counselling and home nursing.
Yesterday, Mr Lansley said payments to patients who develop serious liver conditions as a result of transfusions of tainted blood during the 1970s and 1980s will see their lump sum payments double to 50,000 with a new annual payment of 12,800, in line with HIV victims.
The ex-gratia scheme will also be extended to allow posthumous payments to hepatitis C sufferers who died before August 29, 2003.
Mr Lansley also announced that patients infected with hepatitis C or HIV would receive free prescriptions and a 300,000 fund would provide counselling for sufferers over the next three years. The package is estimated to be worth between 100m and 130m.
"What happened during the 1970s and 80s – when thousands of patients contracted hepatitis C and HIV from NHS blood and blood products – is one of the great tragedies in modern healthcare," said Mr Lansley.
"It's desperately sad to recall that during this period the best efforts of the NHS to restore people to health actually consigned very many to a life of illness and hardship."
Labour MP Diane Abbott welcomed the announcements, but claimed campaigners would regret that the levels of payments were lower than those in the Republic of Ireland.
However, Mr Lansley maintained there was a key difference because the Irish government accepted blame.
Colne Valley MP Jason McCartney is among the MPs leading the campaign in Parliament after being approached by a campaigner in his constituency who has CJD, hepatitis C and HIV after receiving a blood transfusion.
The MP for Haltemprice and Howden, David Davis, said: "Whilst I would have preferred a much more generous settlement, this is a step in the right direction to give justice to the people who have been let down by the actions of successive governments."