Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has accused the government of “using its might” to “bully” and “silence” disabled campaigners in the courts.
People allegedly damaged by the drug Primodos are in a high court battle with both the UK government and the German pharmaceutical company Bayer.
Campaigners say that both the company and the UK regulators were aware of the potential risk of the pregnancy test drug to deform babies in the womb.
Mr Burnham is calling on the government to drop the case and “compensate them for the damage they have suffered”.
Primodos has been described as “the forgotten thalidomide”, however manufacturer Schering, now owned by Bayer, has always denied any association between the drug and malformations, saying there is not sufficient scientific evidence to support the claim.
In 2020 an independent government review found that the drug should have been removed from the market in 1967, a decade before it was, and that UK regulators had been repeatedly warned of the risk.
The health secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, appeared to apologise for those failings when he said: “I want to issue a full apology, for those who’ve suffered, and their families.”
The review team, led by Baroness Cumberlege, suggested the government go further and set up a fund to offer “redress” to the alleged victims.
Despite the apology, the fund has not been created and instead a battle for compensation is being fought in court.
This week campaigners faced what is called a “strike out” application – where the government and manufacturers tried to stop the case reaching a full hearing.
It is particularly contentious as it can leave the claimants liable for all the legal costs.
‘How can this be right?’
The drug was heavily prescribed in the North-West, and Mr Burnham has offered his support to the campaigners.
He told Sky News: “It’s barely believable that the government are, I would say, bullying the victims of a terrible medical negligence case in the court. How can that be right?
“The government and the pharmaceutical company are using their combined might to silence the victims. It is utterly wrong. And it renders the apology given by the former health secretary in 2020 utterly meaningless.”
Mr Burnham, who is a former health secretary, added: “I want to make a direct plea to the current health secretary, someone I have a good deal of regard for: please listen to these victims.
“The government should not be in court bullying people who have been damaged in this way – you should be supporting them.
“So Sajid Javid, please drop this legal action, apologise again, and compensate them for the damage they have suffered.”
Outside court, campaigners expressed similar levels of dismay.
Nicky Gubbins, from the Isle of Wight, who was born with severe deformities that she attributes to the drug, told Sky News: “It’s disgusting. It’s totally out of order.
“We must be given a chance to have our case heard.”
Marie Lyon, chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, added: “It’s reprehensible.
“I feel quite disgusted.
“They don’t want to hear our evidence – that’s really why they want a strike out.”
‘It’s more of an insult than anything else’
Campaigner Charlotte Fensome said: “They (the government) refused to act on their apology, and without redress, it’s more of an insult than anything else.”
In a statement, a DHSC spokesperson told Sky News: “The government apologised unreservedly for the time taken to listen and respond to patients’ concerns when we published our response to the Cumberlege review in July 2021, where we accepted the majority of recommendations and 50 actions for improvement.
“The scientific evidence available does not support a causal association between hormone pregnancy tests and birth defects.
The campaigners disagree and need to bolster their legal representation. They have resorted to crowdfunding to cover their costs, with the support of actor and thalidomide campaigner Ricky Tomlinson.
In promotional video, he called on people to donate to the page, saying: “I’ve just recently finished producing and financing a documentary about thalidomide, but we forget there was another thing ladies took called Primodos and they caused similar deformities and they been overlooked, and we need to bring this to attention because they are still fighting their case.”
The families believe there is new scientific evidence, and in court this week they had a partial success and were given extra time until the end of October to challenge the strike-out application and keep their legal case alive.
Manufacturer Bayer denies that Primodos was responsible for causing any deformities in children.
In a statement the company said: “Previous UK litigation in respect of Primodos, against Schering (which is now owned by Bayer), ended in 1982 when the claimants’ legal team, with the approval of the court, decided to discontinue the litigation on the grounds that there was no realistic possibility of showing that Primodos caused the congenital abnormalities alleged.
“Since the discontinuation of the legal action in 1982, Bayer maintains that no significant new scientific knowledge has been produced which would call into question the validity of the previous assessment of there being no link between the use of Primodos and the occurrence of such congenital abnormalities.
“In 2017 the expert working group of the UK’s Commission on Human Medicines published a detailed report concluding that the available scientific data from a variety of scientific disciplines did not support the existence of a causal relationship between the use of sex hormones in pregnancy and an increased incidence of malformations in the newborn or of other adverse outcomes such as miscarriage.”
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