Statements from victims of the contaminated blood scandal are “harrowing”, “moving” and “chilling”, the public inquiry’s chairman has said.
Former judge Sir Brian Lanstaff, opening his two-year probe, praised the bravery of those giving evidence.
The inquiry will look at how thousands of people were infected with hepatitis C and HIV from contaminated blood they were given in the 1970s and 1980s.
It has been called the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.
About 5,000 people with haemophilia were infected with hepatitis C or HIV when they were given blood products to help their blood clot. More than 2,000 are already thought to have died.
Thousands more may have been exposed through blood transfusions after an operation or childbirth.
Speaking at the opening of the inquiry, Sir Brian said “I have already read a large number [of the witness statements] more than once, some a number of times.
“Some are harrowing, some incredibly moving, some chillingly factual. There are more to come.”
Des Collins, senior partner of Collins Solicitors, which represents more than 1,000 victims and their families, said the start of the inquiry was “incredibly important”.
“For many, many years it didn’t look as if this moment would ever come.”
After the inquiry hears from people in London, there will be other hearings in Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff in the coming months.
Victims and relatives want to know why warnings about the safety of the medicine may have been ignored, why plans to make the UK self-sufficient in blood products were scrapped, and why many documents and patient records appear to have been lost or destroyed.
What is the scandal about?
About 5,000 people with haemophilia and other bleeding disorders are believed to have been infected with HIV and hepatitis viruses over a period of more than 20 years.
This was because they were injected with blood products used to help their blood clot.
It was a treatment introduced in the early 1970s. Before then, patients faced lengthy stays in hospital to have transfusions, even for minor injuries.
Britain was struggling to keep up with demand for the treatment – known as clotting agent Factor VIII – and so supplies were imported from the US.
But much of the human blood plasma used to make the product came from donors such as prison inmates, who sold their blood.
The blood products were made by pooling plasma from up to 40,000 donors and concentrating it.
People who had blood transfusions after an operation or childbirth were also exposed to the contaminated blood – as many as 30,000 people may have been infected.
By the mid-1980s, the products started to be heat-treated to kill the viruses.
But questions remain about how much was known before this and why some contaminated products remained in circulation.
Screening of blood products began in 1991. And by the late 1990s, synthetic treatments for haemophilia became available, removing the infection risk.
The victims stories
Hundreds of victims and their families are expected to give evidence during the inquiry.
A number have been speaking out ahead of its start.
Martin Beard found out he was HIV positive at the age of 17, in the mid-1980s.
He was told at the time he had only two years to live.
He said the next 10 years were “a very difficult, dark time” at the height of the stigma surrounding HIV.
He lost his job and has never worked again.
“There was no medication and stigma was high. I was forced out.”