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Spontaneous applause for first witness to give evidence at the Infected Blood Inquiry

Written tributes are placed in memory of those who lost their lives through the contaminated blood scandal. The memorial was placed outside the hearing room at the Waterfront Hall yesterday. Picture by Hugh Russell
Seanin Graham

SPONTANEOUS applause broke out yesterday after the first witness at the Infected Blood Inquiry in Belfast finished giving evidence detailing the harrowing impact of the scandal on his life.

Outside the hearing room on the top floor of the Waterfront Hall, small test tube bottles were discreetly placed in an installation, with the words "For Memorial" on a piece of cardboard beside it.

Neatly-folded pieces of paper inside the bottles contained messages of condolence and support from survivors and family members in the room.

Described as the "greatest tragedy in the history of the NHS" by the inquiry's chairman Sir Brian Langstaff during his opening address yesterday, he also said it was a "matter of principle" that the UK-wide hearing had come to Northern Ireland - which is the first region to hold sittings outside London.

"So the inquiry puts people first... I promised the inquiry would put people at its heart; paying proper respect to every person's right to be heard," he said.

It is estimated that the infected blood scandal led to the deaths of 2,400 people and the infection of 5,000 patients with HIV and other life-threatening illnesses.

Contaminated blood - taken from individuals including prisoners and drug addicts - was used in the NHS during the late 1970s and 1980s to treat patients.

The inquiry will investigate whether there was a cover-up, with terms of reference considering "whether there have been attempts to conceal details of what happened" through the destruction of documents or withholding of information.

Acknowledging the "difficulties" in witnesses reliving their trauma in the witness box, the inquiry chair noted that the Red Cross was on hand to assist.

Campaigners have fought for 30 years to get to this point and while the Belfast hearings will conclude at the end of this week, it was highlighted that all those affected will be heard, as "every written statement will be read" in Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds as well as London.

"Each (statement) will be different and each is important... For those who hesitate, it is never too late to make a statement: the inquiry would like as complete a picture as you can help to paint," Sir Brian added.

The inquiry is expected to run for at least two years.

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