Infected blood scandal: Yorkshire victims speak of decades of torment as 'massive cover up' ripped families apart

One of Mel McKay’s earliest memories is of a teacher at school shouting “don’t touch her” after she fell.

She was just a little girl when she was given a transfusion which left her with HIV. There was open heart surgery aged four and then, a year later, she haemorrhaged after her tonsils were removed.

There was no explanation, she said, no warning as to what might happen if she was given contaminated blood. The doctors simply told her parents “if we don’t give this to your daughter she is going to die”.

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It was years before she was diagnosed. Years before she herself was told, at the age of 14, that she was HIV Positive. Now, it’s been decades of campaigning for justice.

Louise Edwards who lost her father Jack Edwards as a result of an infected blood scandal pictured holding a photograph of her dad Jack her mum Margaret and  her brother David and Louise., at her home at Churwell, Leeds.  Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeLouise Edwards who lost her father Jack Edwards as a result of an infected blood scandal pictured holding a photograph of her dad Jack her mum Margaret and  her brother David and Louise., at her home at Churwell, Leeds.  Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
Louise Edwards who lost her father Jack Edwards as a result of an infected blood scandal pictured holding a photograph of her dad Jack her mum Margaret and her brother David and Louise., at her home at Churwell, Leeds. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme

“I’m relieved that we have the answers that we’ve always wanted,” she said. “In a sense, it is a victory.

“We knew there had been a massive cover up. Having it in black and white proves there was wrongdoing on a massive scale.”

More than 30,000 people were infected with deadly viruses between the 1970s and early 1990s as they received blood transfusions or blood products while receiving NHS care.

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A 2,527-page report from the Infected Blood Inquiry, published Monday, found the scandal “could largely have been avoided” and there was a “pervasive” cover-up to hide the truth. Some 3,000 people have since died.

Mel McKayMel McKay
Mel McKay

As the report was published, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described it as “a day of shame for the British state”.

To Liberal Democrat Baroness Featherstone, whose nephew died aged 35, it was a “day of reckoning, that justice had finally been done.”

And for Eileen Burkert, in Halifax, a day of turmoil. She lost her father, Ted, in April 1992. A haemophiliac, he developed HIV and hepatitis C from contaminated blood products.

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When she was given the report on Monday morning, she could only read the first two pages.

Mel McKay as a little girlMel McKay as a little girl
Mel McKay as a little girl

“It hit home,” she said. “The report said it shouldn’t have happened. That it could have been avoided. It was no accident. That’s all I needed to know.”

Ms Burkert takes a deep breath before she speaks of the inquiry, chaired by Sir Brian Langstaff. Through all the years of the battle, campaigns and hearings, there had been a niggling fear that it could have gone either way.

“We were all prepared for the worst, in a way,” she said. “The way the Government has treated us – ignoring us and hiding this – we just didn’t trust them.

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“Sir Brian has done us proud. He always said victims would be at the forefront of the inquiry and they have been. That was my only concern for the truth.”

Eileen Burkert with her father TedEileen Burkert with her father Ted
Eileen Burkert with her father Ted

Ms Burkert finds it difficult to talk about the impact of what happened to her father. Reading the words then, she said, is just too hard.

A landscape gardener for the council, he had brought five children up on his own from 1974. They didn’t know he had HIV until the day he died.

“It destroyed this family,” she said. “It has. It hurts so deep. One of my brothers took his own life eight years after dad died. We’ve all gone through different stories.”

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Ms Burkert, 54, was on the train back from London as news came through about compensation. The signal dropped out, and she hasn’t had the strength yet, she said, to catch up. There has been little word though, about what it means for victim’s families.

“All we want is for our loved ones’ lives to be recognised.” she said. “This is the only way – they aren’t going to stand there and read out all their names. It would take hours.”

For many people, this will be the very last time such a heinous wrong can ever be righted.

Ted BurkertTed Burkert
Ted Burkert

Brendan West, a former soldier who lost his leg in 1979 and was given blood transfusions at a British military hospital. Four decades later, he discovered that the blood he was given was infected with Hepatitis C.

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And Simon Cummings, infected with HIV through his treatment for haemophilia and who died in 1996 at the age of just 38.

Nothing, said his sister Amanda Patton, can ever begin to fill the gap that he leaves.

“No amount of money can ever compensate for losing my brother,” she said.

There has been a string of announcements over recent days from Ministers talking about compensation and claims for those affected by the scandal. To victims, many questions remain. Most of all, it brings an ache to remember those who are no longer here.

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Louise Edwards, from Churwell in Leeds, was 12 when she lost her dad Jack. Her brother David was just 13.

This inquiry report, she said, is “vindication” for what the family has always known.

“It means that what we believed – what I’ve known for years – is true,” she said. “There was a cover-up. They lied about it, they deceived so many people.

“I can actually say that now. There is a massive sense of relief, the truth is finally known.”

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Mr Edwards, a foreman at the former John Collier clothing warehouse on Kirkstall Road, had haemophilia and was treated at home with Factor VIII injections.

They were tainted with hepatitis C and HIV. He died in 1985 at the age of 47.

Ms Edwards was in Westminster on Monday as the report was shared with families. There were so many people, she said, standing to represent those who are no longer here.

“I felt I had to be there to see the closure of this chapter,” she added. “It does. We’ve closed the chapter, but we haven’t quite finished the book.

“We have got the answers that the inquiry set out to find.”

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Ms Edwards also paid tribute to Sir Brian, recalling his opening words on the first day of the inquiry as he promised to investigate “without fear or favour”.

She had barely been out of her childhood when her father died. It wasn’t easy, she said. He had been ill for two or three years, but still it had come as a shock. She hadn’t known he had HIV, not until years later. The stigma around the illness had been intense.

He was a very quiet man, a “reserved gentleman”, she said. He wouldn’t have wanted a fuss.

“It was a cover-up and a scandal, but it was also so tragic,” she said. “Lives were lost. You never let go of those emotions.

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“We grieve because we love them. But you never stop missing them, that’s for sure.”

Back in Bridlington, Ms McKay now has round-the-clock care support. The impact on her health has been immense. With a weakened immune system, even a common cold can leave her in hospital, while she had to give up on her dream of becoming a children’s nurse long ago.

Now, she is worried about what this week’s announcements may mean. Some victims have been receiving monthly support payments, part of a promise made years ago. Now, that looks like it might be stripped back to make way for compensation.

“It’s worrying, unsettling really,” she said. “We were always told it was for life.”

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To Ms McKay, this week has been a rollercoaster. She felt emotional hearing the Prime Minister’s apology in Parliament, she said, because for the first time it felt sincere.

She credits Hull North MP Dame Diana Johnson as campaigners’ “saving grace”, having raised their voices tirelessly. For many, it has come too late.

“I always believed that something would be done,” added Ms McKay. “Sadly, back in March this year, my mum passed away. She never got to see the final outcome.”

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