BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for January 2009

Bad Blood evidence still under wraps

Susan Watts | 16:39 UK time, Monday, 26 January 2009

Blood bagBritish haemophiliacs infected with viruses such as Hepatitis C and HIV from blood products used to treat them will soon hear the results of an inquiry set up to find out what went wrong.

The Government has consistently refused to hold a public inquiry, so the haemophiliac community ran its own, chaired by Lord Archer of Sandwell. This concluded last year, and is due to report its findings within the next few weeks. There have been payments in the past to those affected - which have helped to cover costs arising from their infections. But many are now in financial need, and stress that what they really want is to understand how their infections came about.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, around 4,800 haemophiliacs were infected with Hepatitis C through their NHS treatment. Approximately 1200 of those were also infected with HIV, two thirds of whom have since died. Targets in the mid-1970s to end imports of blood products and to make the UK self-sufficient in these were not met (watch our report from April 2007).

Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP, represents a number of haemophiliacs in her Cardiff constituency. Ms Willott has been writing to the Department of Health asking for certain documents to be released to the inquiry. The extraction of documents from Government relating to this issue has been a slow and painful process.

Thousands have made their way to the inquiry team, and into the public domain. But Ms Willott has discovered that 35 are being withheld, many on the grounds of commercial interest. She tells today's Guardian newspaper: "It is appalling that after 20 years, the government is still withholding information... How can the government put private companies' interests, dating back to the 1980s, ahead of the right of the infected and the families of the deceased to know how this dreadful saga was able to happen?

"If the government had backed the independent Archer inquiry, the inquiry team would have had access to all the relevant information. Instead, potentially, crucial information will not be considered by Lord Archer. The Department of Health didn't even send anyone to give evidence to the inquiry."

As for the haemophilia community, they have numerous unanswered questions, and expectations of the inquiry report. Here's a selection, from a brief chat today with Haydn Lewis, who helps to run the TaintedBlood website:

- "After 30 years of infection - which product infected me - commercial or NHS?"
- "We deserve parity with the "compensation" scheme in place in southern Ireland."
- "After 30 years of waiting, the widows and parents of those who have died deserve independent assessment as to whether all this was inadvertent, or not."

Many of those infected have lived longer than was expected, so it will be interesting to see what the inquiry concludes about whether this disaster could have been avoided, and when and how the Government responds - if only to address the fact that many of these families are now struggling to make ends meet.

Restoring science to its rightful place

Susan Watts | 18:48 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

They were the words that scientists everywhere wanted to hear and President Obama couldn't have been clearer, promising to "restore science to its rightful place"...

They'll welcome too his pledge to "roll back the spectre of a warming planet".

For scientists, neither will come a moment too soon. Scientists and engineers feel they need all the support and inspiration the new president can spare them. They will play a vital part in helping Obama to keep another promise he made today, to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories".

Quite a change in tone from the past eight years.

During the Bush presidency, the world saw the Arctic ice cap shrink to a record summer low, the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions, and warnings from scientists shift from urgent to panicky.

President Bush came to power at the start of a new decade, a new century and what many thought would be a new era for science. The news that scientists had pieced together an early draft of the Human Genome had given a palpable lift to the end of the Clinton presidency.

Science was riding high...

But in climate change and other key challenges of science, Bush wouldn't listen to the scientists. He didn't like their view of the world, and he didn't like what they were saying.

Religion, or at least the religious vote, informed Bush policy... His very public distaste for stem cell research mattered because it raised public suspicion of science. Creationism has grown stronger, to the point that more Americans now believe in biblical creation than evolution.

There was plenty of "God" in today's inaugural speech...

"God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny", Obama said.

But there was reference too to non-believers. And if he really does raise science back to its proper place in society, he will help to restore confidence among scientists as much as for the whole of American society. Scientists have grown used to attempts to silence them. Now, they're speaking out again. Unlike economic recession and wars - which pass, they say - climate change does not. And there are deadlines if we want to avoid a point of no return.

Just last week a Nasa scientist, Jim Hansen, whom Bush had tried to silence in the past warned that Obama has just four years to save the world. But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He's already promoted many to top advisory positions... crucially on energy policy.

There's some squabbling over whether cap-and-trade or a carbon tax is the best way to cut greenhouse emissions, but at least the Obama team agrees on the goal.

Read the rest of this entry

Heathrow and the beat of 2009

Susan Watts | 17:19 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009

War, warmth and economic woes have dominated the news bulletins of these early weeks of 2009. And of course, Gaza, the Russia/Ukraine row over winter fuel supplies and global recession demand daily coverage.

heathrowaerial203300.jpgBut there's a barely perceptible, yet steady drumbeat banging behind the daily wrongs that preoccupy the world. That drumbeat is the quiet, but insistent reminder that this year - 2009 - could prove one of the most important in human history. Some commentators put it even more strongly as THE most important year in human history. They point to the meeting in Copenhagen this December, when the world's politicians hope to forge a new global deal to cut carbon emissions in line with what science tells us might just stave off the worst effects of climate change. We're talking about a minimum of an 80% cut by 2050. Mustering the political will to achieve this is a massive task, yet one that is arguably vital to the future security and prosperity of all 7bn inhabitants of the planet. And, unlike War and recession, from which we can recover, we are already facing a world that may be irreversibly changed.

Sir Nicholas Stern, who weighed up the economic costs of climate change, calculated two years ago the cost of inaction to be greater than that of the two World Wars and the Great Depression put together. Yet our plans to combat, or cope with, climate change are strangely absent, as today's wars and today's recession dominate. There's even talk of doing less, now that governments are strapped for cash. But there's a deadline. Scientists want greenhouse emissions heading downwards by 2015 for warming to stay within 2 degrees Celsius - any higher is now recognised as "dangerous" warming.

And as we enter 2009, the British government finds itself about to make an important symbolic decision, on the third runway at Heathrow airport, possibly giving the go-ahead as early as this week. Inevitably, this will be read as a sign of the intentions of the Brown Government on tackling climate-changing emissions. The Government's own figures from a year ago say that as a result of the third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow, greenhouse gas emissions would rise by 2.6m tonnes a year when these open around 2020 (see December 2007's ENDs report - no. 395).

Ok, that may not sound like a large amount, especially in the context of Government forecasts for the UK's share of overall aviation emissions rising from 37.5m tonnes per annum in 2005, to between 55m and 63m tonnes in 2030. But seemingly small rises in emissions, or cuts, count.

Remember Lord Adair Turner's blueprint for building a low-carbon economy? Last December, he set out cuts in emissions of a few million tonnes across many different sectors, slicing away to bring down overall emissions. For example, he talked of the potential to cut 12m tonnes of carbon dioxide from UK cars, 3m tonnes from vans and 5m to 9m tonnes from non-domestic buildings and industry by 2020. It all adds up.

So it will be interesting to see whether the government can convincingly justify a "yes" to a third runway that will inevitably push emissions the "wrong way". Especially as that insistent drumbeat gets louder in this the year when all the talk of the British government leading the international community in the fight against climate change is supposed to become reality in Copenhagen.

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