On 18th May 2021 the Inquiry heard evidence from Mairi Gougeon, Minister for Public Health and Sport and Samantha Baker, Team Leader, Infected Blood Team in Scottish Government, Health Protection Division.
Inquiry Counsel began by asking both to explain about their employment backgrounds before being appointed to their present positions and what their understanding was of hepatitis C and the suffering of individuals infected and affected.
Ms Baker provided information on the transfer of the payment scheme from the Alliance House Organisations to the Scottish Infected Blood Support Scheme (SIBSS). She explained the decision making behind this and why the National Services Scotland were deemed best to set up the scheme.
Ms Baker spoke about the recognised need for a financial review after the Penrose Inquiry Report was published. Inquiry Counsel went through the Financial Review Group Report and it’s proposals which formed the basis of the SIBSS Scheme. Ms Baker was asked about the concerns expressed in the document and how these were addressed by the Scottish Government. Ms Baker explained steps were taken by Government for a Clinical Review in 2017 to look at issues and areas of concern in more detail. She explained that the SIBSS Scheme was a good start, but additional support was needed. She explained beneficiaries were not invited to participate in the consultation process.
Further questioning of Ms Baker related to the Scottish Government including means testing of applicants to the Scheme. Ms Baker explained that it was only the discretionary payments that this affected and future plans included moving away from means testing.
When asked about lump sum payments, Ms Gougeon explained that Government was willing to consider lump sum payments but decided to wait for the outcome of the Infected Blood Inquiry and its recommendations before putting anything in place.
Inquiry Counsel referred Ms Gougeon and Ms Baker to the Clinical Review document and self-declaration by beneficiaries. Inquiry Counsel asked for clarification as to what the Government considered the payments were for, and why they had not backdated these. Ms Gougeon explained the payments were to help with the impact on beneficiaries with HCV and those unable to work because of the debilitating affects of the infection. The payments were not compensatory. Ms Baker explained the Scheme continued to adopt the policy of the Skipton Fund concerning backdating payments.
Inquiry Counsel discussed the issues for beneficiaries regarding insurance products and asked what had been done by the Government in this regard. Ms Baker said this is something that needs to be looked at urgently and will be discussed with the Minister to take the issue forward on a UK wide basis.
Mr. Gougeon and Ms Baker spoke about the importance in engaging beneficiaries in decision making and gave examples as to how the SIBSS did this. Applicants are able appeal SIBSS decisions in person.
Inquiry Counsel questioned the funding for SIBSS and why the funding for HIV came from a different source. Ms Gougeon explained funding for the SIBSS comes from the overall Health and Social Care Budget and the Department of Health and Social Care provides funding for HIV. However, it was unclear as to whether this funding will continue beyond this year.
Ms Baker was asked why SIBSS did not provide for individuals with hepatitis B. She explained the reason was that there had always been screening for this.
Inquiry Counsel questioned as to why bereaved parents and children of parents who have died were not included in the Scheme. It was explained that currently legislation does not allow broader categories to be considered but that this needs further consideration.
Inquiry Counsel discussed the issue of parity and the obvious differences between the four nations. Ms Baker commented that although the principles of the four nations were the same, the Scottish Government preferred to maintain an element of flexibility. Ms Gougeon explained about the delay by the UK Government not being able to secure further funding from the Treasury and the rapid decision making in March of this year during the pre-election period before the announcement from the Cabinet Office on the 25th March 2021. Ms Baker explained SIBSS were still waiting for a letter from the Department of Health and Social Care confirming payments and informing them know how much the Scheme will receive and when. She anticipated if all goes well, then they may be able to start distributing payments in the Autumn.
Inquiry Counsel questioned why payments would only be backdated to April 2019. Ms Baker explained the rationale for this was, that was when the English Scheme increased their payments.
Ms Gougeon informed the Inquiry that funding for a psychiatric support service had been approved and this was open to individuals without a bleeding disorder i.e. family members.
When questioned about compensation, Ms Gougeon commented that it was inevitable that the Government will need to provide this to individuals.
Inquiry Counsel put questions from Core Participants to Ms Gougeon and Ms Baker before completing their evidence.
Ms Gougeon ended with an apology on behalf of the Scottish Government and said there were lessons to be learned.
For a full transcript of the evidence of Mairi Gougeon and Samantha Baker visit https://www.infectedbloodinquiry.org.uk/evidence where you can read the transcript or watch the evidence via YouTube video.