Air Estimates, 1940.

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th March 1940.

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Photo of Sir Ernest Graham-Little Sir Ernest Graham-Little , London University 12:00 am, 7th March 1940

I had not proposed to speak upon the Amendment, but it was moved in such unexpectedly eloquent terms, that I feel compelled to do so. It is not often that one gets a plea for scientific assistance put so well, and it is really that fact which has brought me to my feet. The Mover of the Amendment made rather a good, and, in this House, a very unusual suggestion, that scientific assistance should be invited in regulating the diet of the Fighting Forces. It may not be known to the House that in the last war the rations which were prepared for this country were prepared on the advice and under the direction of a committee of the Royal Society, and that the work was done so well that we had by far the best ration system of any of the belligerents. I fear that the Mover of the Amendment was too optimistic in thinking that the Germans are not entirely familiar with dietary principles as we know them. I do not think we should minimise the enemy's knowledge on that matter. It would be imprudent to do so.

However, I wish to discuss one or two more strictly medical questions, and if I am rather the candid friend than the thrower of bouquets, I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will not quarrel with me on that account. There is a good deal which needs to be looked into at the training depots of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. I have close personal knowledge of one of those stations, at which there are some 2,500 young men, some of whom have been there six months or five months and none less than three months. They have not had any contact whatever with flying. Quite a large proportion of them have come from Canada with certificates for flying gained in their own country. They came over here with the idea of getting into the operative branch at once, some of them having been given an assurance on the point in their own country, but find themselves undergoing tuition in branches of work which they learned five or six years ago, and that is producing a great degree of unrest and dissatisfaction. Moreover, this very large collection of young men are stationed in a seaport where no Sunday cinemas are allowed. On Sundays they can only walk about the streets or frequent the "pubs." No effort is made to help them to pass the time.

Next I should like to say a word about the medical personnel. A little book, which can be obtained at the Stationery Office, has been issued which gives useful instruction to persons who are in the medical and dental departments of the Royal Air Force. The persons it is meant for are orderlies and what one might call auxiliaries. If one looks through that little book, one will see how very special is the knowledge that is required for Royal Air Force medical work, even among the humbler types of assistants. There is, moreover, a distinct and very regrettable shortage of medical officers. The hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Sir M. Sueter) was right in saying that skilled and close observation of the early symptoms of disease was important in order to prevent worse developments. That cannot be undertaken unless there is more adequate medical personnel. I admit that the lack of medical personnel is not the fault of the Air Ministry, and that there is a very serious lack of doctors at the moment. The Royal Army Medical Corps is some thousand short, and what can be done in that connection I do not know.

Let me give an illustration of what happens. There was recently an epidemic of influenza at one station, and a very large number of the young men there contracted the disease. Fortunately it was of a very mild type, but mild types none the less can have quite serious results. I myself know of a case in which a young sergeant had a severe attack of influenza. He was sent by the Air Force medical officer, who told him to go to bed in his own dormitory, which he shared with six or seven other men. He had a temperature of 103 for two nights. He was seen by nobody, had no nursing and was served with food by his own friends. The only instructions he received from the medical officer were that he should go to bed and report again two days later. Fortunately he was a man of some character, and he said, "I am not going out at 8 o'clock in the morning with a temperature of 103 to walk through the streets," which were then covered with six inches of snow. Everything should be done to prevent any repetition of that kind of thing. I am sure that the medical officer is not to blame, because he is overworked and has not enough personnel to asist him, but it is a matter which ought to be looked into and is really very urgent.

Some three or four days ago I asked a question in the House on the incidence of cerebro-spinal fever in the Army. It is an exceedingly infectious disease, and according to the Registrar-General's latest reports there has been an alarming spread of it throughout the country. It is assuming the character of a severe epidemic. If that epidemic extended to closely-inhabited quarters such as are found in many stations of the Royal Air Force most appalling results might follow. The hon. Member who has just sat down referred to the epidemic of influenza, after the last war, in 1918 which killed more persons than the Great War itself, and all the prognostications are that a similar epidemic may follow in the wake of this war. Persons expert in the compiling of statistics have in fact, to my knowledge, warned the Ministry of Health that the portents are in that direction. If there was not an adequate medical service in the face of a great epidemic of either of those types, I fear the reaction would be very serious indeed in the country. I do not think too much importance can be attached—I may, of course, be prejudiced in this matter—to the provision of a proper, experienced medical service, adequate in numbers, for the Air Force.