Pressure grows to compensate thousands of veterans
BRIAN BRADY, WESTMINSTER EDITOR
The Prime Minister is on the verge of a dramatic U-turn over Gulf War Syndrome, in a move that could clear the way for thousands of sick veterans to receive huge compensation pay-outs, senior defence sources confirmed last night.
Tony Blair is considering falling in line with Nato allies – particularly the United States – in accepting that veterans have suffered crippling mental and physical illnesses as a direct result of their service in the Gulf conflict in 1990-1991.
More than 5,000 British troops who helped chase Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait – nearly one in five of the veterans – claim they have developed illnesses including neurological disorders and bone disease since the war.
Now senior Ministry of Defence insiders have signalled that the government is preparing the way for a landmark policy shift, in the face of consistent pressure from veterans' groups – and even a US congressional committee which came to London to hold its own hearings on the issue last week.
"There is a gathering realisation that the government cannot hold out against recognising Gulf War illnesses forever, particularly when allies like the United States are taking what is increasingly looking like the opposite position," one source told Scotland on Sunday.
"A number of people have resisted the change purely on cost grounds, but there is also a very respectable argument that the medical case has not been categorically proven.
"Several ministers feel the ongoing research will eventually make the case for change. I don't think there is a political will against that."
Asked whether the visit from the US Congressional Subcommittee on National Security had helped crank up the pressure, the source replied: "All these things have kept the issue high on the agenda."
The news comes after last week's claim by the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association that 542 people have now died from Gulf War Syndrome (GWS).
The latest servicemen to die were Donald MacDonald from Glasgow and Geoffrey Titcombe from Norfolk.
Veterans groups claim that a lethal cocktail of toxins, including uranium from weapons, the immunisation tablets Gulf War personnel took to protect them from chemical attack, and the insecticides used in their camps has left them exposed to a wide range of crippling conditions.
The United States authorities have already recognised GWS as a medical condition, enabling thousands of American veterans to claim disability allowance and receive priority treatment. The US has also accepted the debilitating condition Motor Neurone Disease as a symptom of GWS.
But the United Kingdom has stubbornly refused to follow the US lead, insisting there is no evidence of a link between service in the Gulf and the symptoms reported by thousands of personnel on their return.
The latest twist in the saga comes after a second round of tests on Scottish GWS victim Ian MacIver confirmed he still has traces of depleted uranium
(DU) in his system – 11 years after the end of the conflict in the Gulf. DU, used in 'tank-busting' allied missiles during the conflict, is one of the major suspected causes of GWS.
Veterans' groups have repeatedly complained that MoD officials have held out against recognising GWS because it would produce a multi-million-pound bill for compensation payments to sufferers.
But a number of senior government figures, including defence minister Lewis Moonie, have remained resistant to any change unless it is backed by scientific evidence. The government has ordered a dozen separate research projects into the alleged condition.
Kirkcaldy MP Dr Moonie said: "The Ministry of Defence accepts that some veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict have become ill and that many believe this ill-health is unusual and related to their Gulf experience."
"There is evidence that Gulf veterans report more ill-health than other comparable groups. The government attach great importance to investigating the causes of this and believe that the best way of doing so is through scientific and medical research."
Last week, Blair promised to establish the "scientific truth" behind Gulf War Syndrome, backed by 37m-worth of research into the mystery.
James Moore, treasurer of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, said he believed the government was reacting to concerted national pressure, which includes calls for a public inquiry into the claims.
"All we are asking for is honesty from the government," he said. "The best way to achieve this would be through a public inquiry which would then prove whether these veterans are hypochondriacs, money-grabbers or just ill. In our hearts we know they are really ill."
(received via Co-Cure)