‘They wouldn’t touch a bottle I had touched’: Blood scandal victims were treated like ‘lepers’

More than 3,000 people died in the UK in what is regarded as the worst treatment disaster in the NHS’s history

On the day Marie Cromie was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a doctor advised her not to share a toothbrush and not tell anyone about it.

It was 2003 and the school crossing patrol woman was informed in a Belfast hospital that she had a blood-borne virus associated with drug addicts.

Cromie’s teenage daughter, Danielle, became her carer and recalls being treated like a “leper” when she confided in some friends about the illness.

“It very quickly went around the school – there was a stigma because no one knew enough about it,” she says.


“There was the talking behind your back, not passing a ball to me in netball, they wouldn’t touch a bottle I had touched ... stupid things. When I look back now it was trivial but at the time it was the worst feeling.”

Last Monday, Danielle Mullan sat in her late mother’s front room and watched online a judge deliver the devastating findings of a public inquiry into what is regarded as the worst treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service (NHS).

The vast report found a “catalogue of failures” amounting to a “calamity” in which 30,000 patients “suffered miserably” after being infected with HIV and hepatitis C as a result of being treated with contaminated blood between the 1970s and early 1990s.

Cromie received an infected blood transfusion after giving birth to her son in 1981.

She is among the estimated 3,000-plus victims who died – a death toll described as “horrifying” by inquiry chair Brian Langstaff.

He found the scandal “could largely have been avoided” and laid bare a culture in which a lack of openness and transparency by the NHS and government meant the truth was “hidden for decades” to “save face and save expense”.

Documents were deliberately destroyed while others went missing.

There was a cover-up, the report concluded.

“Not in the sense of a handful of people plotting in an orchestrated conspiracy to mislead, but in a way that was more subtle, more pervasive and more chilling in its implications,” Langstaff wrote.

Pointing to a framed photograph of her mother, Mullan blinks away tears; the pair were inseparable and became part of a campaign group that fought for justice for those affected in Northern Ireland.

The 64-year-old grandmother died last July after suffering decades of serious health problems linked to the infected blood that saw her undergo two liver transplants in King’s College Hospital in London.

“Everyone joked we were like Tweedledee and Tweedledum – you never saw one without the other; I always say, she wasn’t just my mum, she was my best friend. Part of me died that night when she passed,” says Mullan.

“She was a lollipop lady who loved her family and grandchildren, she was so funny and one of the most caring people. No matter what her own problems were or circumstances, she was always thinking about other people.

“I don’t think I’ve properly grieved yet; I haven’t allowed myself because we’ve had this whole inquiry going on. I promised her no matter what would happen I would see it through to the end for her.”

Hundreds of people were infected with contaminated blood in Northern Ireland and the inquiry outlined that the North was heavily reliant on blood donated by prisoners and the British army during the Troubles.

Prison blood donations stopped in the North in 1983 but the report warned this should have happened much sooner; it pointed to the American Red Cross which stopped collecting blood from prisoners in the US in 1971 because the incidence of hepatitis was 10 times greater among the prison population than among voluntary unpaid donors.

Ahead of watching the live coverage on the inquiry’s YouTube page on Monday, Mullan insists she and other campaigners “always knew it was a cover-up”.

“But to hear that and to know what we had been saying for all those years was true – you think you’re prepared for it but you’re not prepared at all,” she says.

The UK inquiry began in 2019, exactly 20 years after a landmark tribunal was ordered in the Republic into a similar scandal relating to contaminated blood products.

Giving evidence to the UK hearing , the chief executive of the Irish Haemophilia Society, Brian O’Mahony, said the Lindsay Tribunal led to a “culture change” in how patients were treated in Ireland.

The head of a support group for haemophiliacs in the North said what happened in the South acted as a “driver” in their campaign for truth after he and his twin brother learned they had hepatitis C from infected blood.

Nigel Hamilton contracted the virus after undergoing an eye procedure to correct a squint when he was a teenager 50 years ago. He had a liver transplant in 2018 and has three brain tumours.

Five months ago, he lost his twin brother Simon on Christmas Day. Simon Hamilton set up Haemophilia NI seven years ago and campaigned alongside Cromie.

Speaking from London following the report’s publication, Nigel Hamilton breaks down on the phone: “It’s only just hit me that I’ve lost Simon ... he worked so hard to achieve what we got today. The judge was our champion.”

For Mullan, the delay in ordering the UK inquiry after the Republic acted decades earlier “is no surprise”.

“I’ve always been under the impression that the British government held off as long as it could hoping that the lie would die with the victims.

“To be honest, I’m disgusted by the British government and the NHS. They played God with people’s lives; no one had that right.”

On the day we meet in her Dunmurry home on the outskirts of Belfast, news of a compensation package for victims has just broken; she welcomes it but says it is a “minefield” for bereaved families.

The pharmacy worker vows to continue to fight for her mother.

“When all this is still going on, you’re never at peace.

“I want this done now. I want the compensation paid out so I can go down to Mum at Millisle and say to her: ‘It’s done’.”

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