School could do nothing more to help HIV pupils ‘as they were going to die’
The former headmaster of a school embroiled in the infected blood scandal has told an inquiry there was nothing more the school could have done to support pupils emotionally after they were diagnosed with HIV and hepatitis as “they were infected and were going to die”.
Alec Macpherson was the headmaster at Lord Mayor Treloar College, a boarding school in Hampshire, from 1974 to 1990.
During his tenure, several pupils – who had haemophilia – were diagnosed in their teenage years with HIV after receiving treatments which were infected. Others found out they had hepatitis prior to him joining the school.
A total of 72 haemophiliac pupils who attended the school in the 1970s and 1980s have since died after contracting HIV and hepatitis.
Earlier this week, former pupils and parents of former pupils gave evidence to the inquiry – where they said the boys were given little emotional support after receiving their diagnoses.
In the latest hearing of the inquiry on Thursday, Mr Macpherson outlined the emotional support offered at the school, which included two counsellors on site and a psychiatrist who would visit pupils weekly.
While he said he acted “in loco parentis”, or in place of the parents, for the pupils, he added the boys would lean on their schoolmasters at their boarding houses or the nurses at the haemophilia site for support after receiving their diagnoses.
He said he was not invited to any meetings where pupils were informed they had hepatitis or were HIV-positive.
“All the boys had someone they could talk to who was willing to listen to them,” he said.
“They weren’t mentally ill – they didn’t need psychiatric help, they were perfectly sane. What they had was a rage inside them, a frustration, that suddenly they had been made ill and they were going to die in the not-too-distant future.
“You could see it when you talked to them… it was a result of this disease, it had a dreadful effect on them.”
He added: “If you’re trying to say that we should have done more in terms of counselling them, I don’t think we could have done any more. I think the staff did as much as they could.
“There was nothing you could do about it. They were infected, they were going to die and that was it. You just had to help them get on with life and live life to the full. Our way of doing it was trying to keep them busy.”
The school, which has since rebranded as Treloar’s, issued a statement on Monday which said the on-site haemophilia medical centre where the boys were treated was run by the NHS.
And Mr Macpherson told the inquiry on Thursday the school had an oversight of the NHS-run centre, with at least two doctors being paid NHS workers while other medical staff, including physiotherapists and nurses, were employed by the school.
During his tenure as headteacher, Mr Macpherson said he had nothing to do with the decision-making regarding the boys’ health, what they were treated with, how and when they were told about their diagnoses and conversations with parents over consent and treatment plans.
He instead held weekly meetings with Dr Aronstam, an NHS worker and director of the haemophilia centre in the 1970s and 1980s, who gave him a general update on how the boys were doing.
Other medical issues were handled by the college’s medical officer, Dr Pat Tomlinson – a GP, he added.
What they had was a rage inside them, a frustration, that suddenly they had been made ill and they were going to die in the not-too-distant future.
Documents shown to the inquiry on Thursday revealed the school governors, and Mr Macpherson, discussed the pupils’ positive antibody tests for Aids at a meeting in 1985.
Mr Macpherson said he believed the meeting was held shortly after he had first been informed of the pupils’ HIV diagnoses by Dr Aronstam, and that the school “did not delay doing everything they could” to help the pupils.
Medical records seen by the inquiry earlier this week showed some pupils were listed as being “at risk” of hepatitis in 1978, while Dr Aronstam had begun monitoring pupils for HTLV – which is what HIV was previously known as – as early as 1983.
When this was put to him, Mr Macpherson said he found it “hard to believe” Dr Aronstam had potentially waited two years to tell him students had been infected with HIV.
“I always thought that they [the doctors] were doing the best they could,” he said.
“If they didn’t take immediate take action when they knew that infected blood was being used, I’m very surprised. I think that was remiss, that was a mistake, which I would say was culpable. If that is true – that’s disgraceful.”
He added: “I don’t think any of us in the school…we didn’t know about it, we didn’t have any authority, or reason to interfere in any way, no reason whatsoever. Doctors are God, let’s face it, aren’t they?”
Lead counsel for the inquiry, Jenni Richards QC, told chairman of the inquiry Sir Brian Langstaff she has not seen any earlier references to Aids in the governor’s meeting documents, but “did not want to give him an assurance” that was correct until she had checked the documents herself.
Trealoar’s said in a statement the school had developed a “much deeper understanding of what happened” to the pupils as a result of the evidence given this week and it was “grateful” to those who highlighted shortcomings in the pastoral care.
The inquiry continues.