Contaminated blood scandal: Inquiry begins into 'worst tragedy in the history of the NHS'

David Mercer, news reporter

Victims of the contaminated blood scandal have criticised extra money pledged to them by the government, on the day a public inquiry begins to hear evidence.

Almost 3,000 people died after being infected with HIV or hepatitis C by contaminated blood products imported from the US in the 1970s and 1980s.

Prime Minister Theresa May said the scandal was a "tragedy that should never have happened" as she announced financial support would increase from £46m a year to £75m for those affected.

However, lawyers representing more than 1,000 victims branded the additional money "minuscule in real terms for those whose health has suffered so significantly, for so long".

Des Collins, a senior partner at Collins Solicitors, said: "These payments provide a minimal level of support and I fear that the increase announced today will do little to help offset the challenges that many people are facing.

"The government has denied compensation to the victims since the scandal emerged and continues to maintain this position."

Mr Collins urged the government to "accept its legal liability for the scandal and pay compensation to the victims and families now, in order to spare them the torment of a lengthy legal battle as more victims die".

The Infected Blood Inquiry will begin hearing evidence from victims in central London on Tuesday, before similar testimonies take place over the coming months in Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Michelle Tolley, 54, from Norfolk, contracted hepatitis C after having a transfusion during childbirth involving tainted blood.

The mother-of-four told Sky News: "Today is the first day of the long-awaited inquiry, and next week I will have to stand and tell my story.

"It is nerve-wracking, but I have to remember I am not the one on trial.

"No, I am the person who was given a death sentence despite not committing a crime."

Ms Tolley has previously described the scandal as the "worst tragedy in the history of the NHS", adding: "Every day I wake up with a death sentence hanging over me."

At least 4,689 people, many of them haemophiliacs, were infected with HIV, hepatitis C or both, and at least 2,944 have since died.

Many were infected by supplies of factor VIII, an essential blood-clotting protein that haemophiliacs do not produce naturally.

The UK was reliant on supplies imported from the US, where it was manufactured with blood collected from prisoners, sex workers, drug addicts and other high-risk groups who were paid to give blood.

Mrs May said: "The contaminated blood scandal was a tragedy that should never have happened and has caused unimaginable pain and hurt for victims and their families for decades.

"I know this will be a difficult time for victims and their families - but today will begin a journey which will be dedicated to getting to the truth of what happened and in delivering justice to everyone involved."

The public inquiry - which opened in September - is being chaired by former High Court judge Sir Brian Langstaff.