Maureen Sugden

IT has been called the worst treatment disaster in NHS history that saw the infection of up to 30,000 people with contaminated blood and claimed the lives of thousands.

Now the Infected Blood Inquiry is finally underway and is sitting in Scotland, but what do we know already about the scandal?

What exactly happened?

Contaminated blood infected with HIV and hepatitis viruses was given to people with haemophilia and other bleeding disorders during the 1970s and 1980s.

Some of this blood was given to accident victims or women during childbirth in the form of a blood clotting product known as Factor VIII.

Before donated blood began to be screened for blood-borne viruses in September 1991, it is thought around 4,800 people were infected, but it is possible the number stretches to 30,000. More than 2,000 are thought to have died.

Why was the blood contaminated?

Factor VIII blood clotting treatment was supposed to improve lives by helping blood clot.

It was produced using a process of pooling human blood plasma from up to 100,000 donors and concentrating it.

But blood products were known to transfer viruses such as hepatitis and this risk increased when they were pooled using the new procedures. Also, supplies of UK produced products were not sufficient to cope with demand, so concentrates were imported from the US – including from high-risk sources such as the prison population.

Why is there a public inquiry?

Because no-one has been held to account. Victims and their loved ones have been campaigning for a wide-ranging inquiry for years, with efforts intensifying following the publication of a 1,800 page report by Scottish judge Lord Penrose in 2015, which was branded a “whitewash”.

After six years of investigation, its sole recommendation was that all those in Scotland who had a transfusion before 1991 should be tested for Hepatitis C. It also concluded little more could have been done by Scottish authorities to prevent the infections.

The Government inn Westminster has been accused of dragging its heels, only announcing there would be an inquiry after facing a possible defeat in a vote on an emergency motion. But finally, after decades of campaigning by victims and family members, the probe is taking place.

Have people in other countries been infected?

Yes, other countries imported blood products during the same time frame and cases have been identified around the world, including in France, Portugal, Italy and Ireland.

Thousands were given infected blood in the US and there, firms that supplied infected products have paid out millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements.

Why is it sitting in Scotland?

At least 24 people infected – or who are loved ones of those infected – are giving evidence during witness hearings at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. They began yesterday and continue till July 11.

The public inquiry – the biggest to be held in the UK – has already heard from witnesses in different parts of England and Northern Ireland and evidence has been harrowing at times.

Yesterday, on day one of the Scots hearings, Thomas Griffiths – known as Dai – said more "honesty" could have saved lives. He said he was not told he had Hepatitis C which was likely linked to infected blood, until nine years after being diagnosed. And he said he raised concerns with doctors treating him for haemophilia in Dumfries in the mid-1980s over the use of Factor VIII. He said: "It was causing me concern having to come in for a product which was not thought to be entirely safe." But he added that he was told there was "no need to worry”.

What now?

The hearings will move from Edinburgh to Cardiff later in the month and then to London in October. The Inquiry is expected to take at least two years.

When it had its first hearings in April, it was announced that criminal trials could follow.

For now, thought, the inquiry, chaired by former high court judge Sir Brian Langstaff, who was educated at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, has pledged to examine how people were given infected blood products, the impact on their lives and families, the governmental response and “whether there was a cover-up”.