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Health

Decades of failure and denial over tainted blood scandal revealed

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ON MONDAY evening (May 20), Rishi Sunak apologised on behalf of the British government to the victims of the contaminated blood scandal.

After a five-year public inquiry, the Prime Minister offered an “unequivocal” apology for the findings published in Sir Brian Langstaff’s report earlier on May 20.

The findings were damning.

They included the revelation that ministers, doctors and civil servants knew the risks of the blood products given to haemophiliacs and people needing blood transfusions.

Victims were “gaslit” by claims that the mass infection of those patients with HIV and hepatitis C was inadvertent, that screening started as soon as it could, and that no one could have stopped it sooner.

None of those things were true.

Under successive Labour and Conservative Governments, the Department of Health and HM Treasury fought against a public inquiry and the idea of paying compensation to those affected by being given tainted blood products.

Officials fobbed off ministers who tried to look into what had happened, complaining that they had too much sympathy for the victims.

When briefing documents for ministers got close to revealing the truth, civil servants doctored their content to misrepresent their authors’ findings.

While Mr Sunak apologised for the failures of the British state and Sir Kier Starmer for a “failure of politics”, the blame doesn’t rest only at Westminster’s door.

Welsh Government ministers are specifically mentioned for refusing to hold a public inquiry and not seeking advice specific to Wales. Instead, despite having responsibility for the NHS in Wales, they slavishly followed Westminster’s line.

Welsh Government ministers failed to examine the strength of the evidence UK ministers and officials relied upon or assess the evidence available in Wales.

Had they done so, they would have found key claims – that all infections were inadvertent and patients received the best possible treatments – were untrue and unfounded.

Only in 2017 did the Welsh Government change tack, when then-Health Minister Vaughan Gething wrote to his UK counterpart, Jeremy Hunt, to request a UK-wide public inquiry.

Ironically, only Theresa May’s political weakness following the 2017 General Election led the Westminster Government to order a public inquiry. Mrs May feared losing a Commons vote on the demand for one.

The worst elements of the scandal are clinical and institutional.

Clinicians, Department of Health officials, and others concealed the truth to avoid blame and liability.
The inquiry pointed to medical advice on the dangers of blood and plasma dating back 40 years and court rulings that showed other countries had started screening sooner.

Doctors claimed they hadn’t seen evidence of infection through those products even while treating people who had contracted AIDS from their treatment with them.

Documents disappeared, were “lost”, and patient records were deleted.

Leading clinicians withheld critical information from patients and their families.
Children with haemophilia were treated as guinea pigs.

The list of severe historic and continuing failings is almost unending.

The government’s easiest task is paying compensation. Addressing the culture of secrecy and institutional arrogance will be much harder.

For more on this story, see this week’s edition of The Pembrokeshire Herald.

Health

Welsh cancer care in peril as workforce crisis escalates, warn radiologists

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THE ROYAL College of Radiologists (RCR) has issued a stark warning about the escalating workforce crisis in Wales, revealing alarming shortfalls in clinical radiologists and oncologists.

Two new reports highlight a dire situation: Wales faces a 34% shortfall in clinical radiologists and a 12% shortfall in clinical oncologists. Without immediate action, these shortfalls are projected to rise to 28% and 38%, respectively, by 2028, the largest in the UK. Additionally, nearly a quarter (24%) of clinical oncology consultants in Wales are expected to retire in the next five years, compared to the UK average of 18%. Currently, trainees make up 29% of Wales’s clinical oncology workforce, slightly below the UK average of 32%.

Patient safety is at risk due to the critical shortage of radiologists. Wales has only 6.1 radiologists per 100,000 people, the lowest ratio among the four nations. All clinical directors in Wales report that they lack sufficient radiologists to provide safe and effective patient care. Cancer centres are experiencing routine delays in starting treatment and are struggling to manage increasing demand, relying heavily on goodwill, insourcing, and locums. Such delays are critical for cancer patients, as each month’s delay in treatment raises the risk of death by approximately 10%.

Despite the implementation of the Cancer Improvement Plan for Wales a year ago, the workforce crisis continues to worsen due to insufficient training and retention efforts. Hospitals are struggling to meet patient demand, and this issue is one of the most pressing challenges that the UK governments must address urgently.

The reports also reveal significant regional disparities in access to cancer care across Wales. Rural areas are the hardest hit. South West Wales has 7.4 clinical oncologists per 100,000 older residents, South East Wales has 6.6, but North Wales lags behind with just 5.3. North and West Wales suffer from the UK’s largest shortage of clinical radiologists, with London having twice as many radiologists per 100,000 people. This disparity leads to faster imaging test results and cancer treatment initiation in some regions, causing significant delays and increased anxiety in others.

An anonymous consultant stated, “I can no longer defend the NHS as an exemplary healthcare system. We are all failing and in so doing failing our patients.”

The RCR has written to the cabinet secretary, warning that without immediate intervention, Wales risks undoing decades of progress in cancer care. The RCR demands urgent investment in workforce development to ensure patients are not left waiting for a diagnosis and can begin lifesaving treatment promptly. They urge the next government to collaborate with the NHS to outline a plan to recruit, train, and retain clinical oncologists and radiologists, ensuring workforce stability for future generations.

Dr Katharine Halliday, RCR President, said, “Today’s reports lay bare a harsh reality: the crisis in Wales’ radiology and oncology workforce is jeopardising patient health. Despite our commitment to providing the best care, severe staff shortages are significantly impeding our efforts. We simply do not have enough doctors to safely manage the growing number of patients, and this issue will worsen as demand rises and more doctors leave the NHS. The immense strain on an overburdened system, coupled with exhausted staff and increasing demand, creates a toxic mix for the healthcare system in Wales.

“Urgent action from the governments of all four nations is essential. We must prioritise recruiting and training more doctors and implement strategies to retain our current workforce. Time is critical; doctors are working under extreme stress and are deeply concerned for their patients. We’re calling on the governments of all four nations to reset the system, save our NHS, and ensure that patients receive the quality care they deserve.”

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Health

Disabled people facing ‘David and Goliath’ battle for support

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DISABLED people too often face a David and Goliath-style battle for support under Wales’ health and social care system, a committee heard.

The Senedd health committee took evidence about the Welsh Government’s plans to reform direct payments which allow disabled people to arrange their own care and support.

Nathan Lee Davies, an author, artist, and activist from Wrexham, told the committee he has had a largely negative experience of direct payments with his local council.

“The local authority has recently clawed back £33,000 of my direct payments,” he said, adding that he finds it difficult to spend his money in the way he would like.

Mr Davies, who has Friedrich’s ataxia, which affects his co-ordination, balance and speech, was saving up for a rainy day as well as a holiday to Florida – his first break in 14 years.

But Wrexham Council demanded the return of “surplus” funds, leading him to launch a successful gofundme campaign to raise money for his dream trip.

Chris Hall, a volunteer who supports Nathan, said the campaigner gets no opportunity to co-produce his “defective, appallingly written” care and support plan.

He said Nathan faces a continual David-and-Goliath battle with a “dysfunctional” direct payments department, warning: “They’re not interested in what Nathan wants.”

He drew a parallel with the victims of scandals around the post office, infected blood, and the Hillsborough disaster – who found themselves isolated and up against big organisations.

Mr Hall told the committee disabled people are too often walking a financial tightrope unable to save money for a potentially catastrophic rainy day.

He stressed that disabled people deserve the opportunity to live a fulfilled life, not just get by.

If passed, the health and social care bill will introduce a right to direct payments via the Continuing NHS Healthcare support service.

Mr Hall warned that disabled people who opt for direct payments for Continuing NHS Healthcare may not be able to go back to receiving support from the council.

“I think Nathan and many people who are disabled say ‘it’s better the devil I know’,” he said.

“Rather than jumping into a swimming pool and saying ‘I’ll see if I can swim’ they’re saying ‘I’ll stay on the edge of the pool – at least I’m not drowning’.”

Shahd Zorob, a fellow campaigner, from Carmarthenshire, warned about more pressure being piled on an already under-strain health service.

Ms Zorob, who has cerebral palsy, also raised concerns about a shortage of personal assistants, saying the pay is simply not good enough.

Mr Hall agreed that there is too often a “revolving door” in terms of support workers, with Mr Davies finding it difficult to recruit and retain staff.

“He’s effectively self-employed and managing ten staff,” he told the meeting on June 12.

Cecilia Kenny, a disability rights campaigner, who is also from Wrexham, called for clearer information and communication around the plans for direct payments via the NHS.

Samantha Williams, policy manager at Learning Disability Wales, supported the reform’s aims but raised concerns about implementation and the administrative burden on families.

Jake Smith, policy officer at Carers Wales, said the bill would potentially increase choice and control for unpaid carers and their loved ones.

Kat Watkins, project development officer at Disability Wales, who recently moved to Continuing NHS Healthcare herself, also welcomed the proposed changes.

She said: “We’ve got a two-tier war between disabled people and people with long-term health conditions who either can have the control over their care or can’t.

“And that is not something that we want in Wales at all.”

Ms Watkins added: “It’s so important for human rights …they may have complex health needs but they still have rights as human beings to have an independent life.”

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Health

Surgery disruption ‘will be minimal’ during telephone system overhaul

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IN response to ongoing issues that have caused significant distress and upset among both patients and staff, Robert Street Surgery has announced a complete overhaul of its telephone system. The decision to adopt a new provider comes after careful consideration of the persistent problems associated with the current phone system.

The transition to the new telephone system is scheduled to take place over two days: Tuesday, July 2, and Wednesday, July 3. According to the practice, the disruption will be minimal, with any loss of service expected to last only a few minutes in total.

Patients are advised to be aware of the potential for unexpected issues during these dates and are requested to bear with the surgery as it navigates the transition. The surgery will remain open as usual on both days. In the event of any difficulties in reaching the practice by phone, patients are encouraged to call into the surgery directly or to email if their concerns are non-urgent.

A spokesperson for the practice expressed confidence that the new system will significantly enhance the patient experience when contacting the surgery in the future. They also extended apologies for any negative experiences patients may have encountered up to now.

On behalf of The Robert Street Practice, the spokesperson thanked patients for their patience and support during this transition period.

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