NHS Winter Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 10th January 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 2:09 pm, 10th January 2018

If the hon. Gentleman gives me a little longer, he will find that I intend to talk about the flu epidemic, but before he gets too celebratory he might want to wait until tomorrow when we will have comparable data, because while in Scotland the data are published every week, in England they are published only every month. I am glad, however, that we no longer wait six weeks after the end of a month, which is 10 weeks after the start of it, but get it a fortnight later. So that will be available tomorrow, and then he can compare hospital trusts in England with hospitals in Scotland to his heart’s content. I would have thought that, as someone who celebrates the United Kingdom, he might want to praise the fact that Scotland has led the entire UK since March 2015 on emergency admissions and A&E.

Having corrected that, all of us recognise that this is a particularly tough winter because there has been an outbreak of flu on top of a bad freeze. I point out to those who think the worst is past that the flu season lasts until March and at the moment this is an outbreak, not an epidemic, but it comes on top of underlying pressures, and across the four nations this has involved staff having to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Whether it was how Public Health England said it or how the media reacted to it, this business of stating in public that the flu vaccination does not work is unfortunate and irresponsible. The flu vaccination recipe is planned by the World Health Organisation at the beginning of each year. It will already be working on next year’s flu. It does not have a crystal ball and people who have what we in the medical profession call a retrospectoscope should recognise that that tool was not available at the time when the decisions were made. Producing vaccine is a biological process that takes months, so the decision is made in March for the northern hemisphere, and all the companies produce to that recipe. Headlines in Scotland implying that the Scottish Government popped down to Boots and took the wrong vaccine off the shelf are therefore facile, and that also encourages people not to bother.

We already have falling vaccination rates in childhood vaccination and in flu. We should be pointing out that multiple flu viruses are circulating. While all the talk in the media is of Australian flu, in Scotland that is about a quarter of the strains that are circulating.

One of the issues with flu is that it happens in cold weather, and in Scotland we get the coldest weather in the United Kingdom, so we have double the rate of flu that there is down here in England. We also had a worse freeze, and are continuing to have a worse freeze. So when the data come out tomorrow, I think we will see that Scotland will still lead the UK. We will not be performing to the level we want; we have not met the 95% target for emergency departments since August, but England has not met them since 2015 and, sadly, Wales has not met them since 2008. So this is a challenge across the board, but Scotland has been more resilient. I call on all MPs to encourage staff and other people to get a flu vaccination, because this will continue until March and it is still absolutely worth doing.

The Secretary of State often talks as if the problems in A&E are due to people who should not be there. If we talk to anyone who works in A&E, they will say that, by and large, that is not the case. With people getting fractured ankles and fractured wrists on the ice, A&Es will have been very busy with having people carted in and having people X-rayed and what we call in Scotland getting a stookie put on before they go home. That is all going to take time, but anyone who works in A&E would say that the key issue is frail, sick people, often with multiple conditions, and whether they fractured their hip falling on the ice or have a respiratory problem secondary to flu, they need a bed and the issue in England is that there are not enough beds.