Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:30 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour 11:30 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I am conscious of the hour and I shall try to be brief. This is an important matter and I speak from the point of view of my special interest which I shall declare as chairman of the board of the Public Health Laboratory Service. Your Lordships may know that it is a statutory body set up by the Department of Health with the specific remit to protect the public from infectious diseases. The amendment seeks to remove the potential damage to that public protective role.

The PHLS traces the sources of infection by testing samples from patients, from food, water and the environment and by analysing and using the test results to activate a search for the sources of outbreaks and prevent the further spread of infection. That chain of activities relies heavily on doctors providing specimens from patients--for instance, blood, throat swabs and so forth--and laboratories reporting results, when they reveal an infectious disease, to our Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre. That is how cases of meningitis, TB, E.coli 0157 food poisoning and a myriad of other serious contagious diseases are detected and, most importantly, how the sources of those infections are traced. All that needs to be done quickly if the rapid spread of infection is to be avoided.

Let us imagine the situation in which a specimen from a patient is sent to one of our laboratories and the patient is found to have E.coli 0157. In order to get the patient's permission to let our surveillance unit know that this infection has been found, the laboratory must contact the GP. The GP must then contact the patient to obtain consent before the information can be passed on. Tracing GPs and then patients will not be an instantaneous process and precious time will be lost.

One might say that consent should have been obtained when the specimen was taken. The fact is that most patients with symptoms, for example gastric upsets, will not have E.coli infections. One cannot raise fears in all patients by discussing this potential with everyone in advance. Remember that in these circumstances speed is of the essence. At the moment doctors and laboratories face the dilemma of trying to seek consent from individuals at a time when delay poses threats to the community at large.

Unfortunately, the guidelines recently produced by the General Medical Council are based on a strict interpretation of the law and allow little leeway for doctors to provide information about their patients without their specific consent to the PHLS and others concerned with trying to nip outbreaks in the bud.

We already sense a reluctance among doctors and laboratory staff to report infections for fear that they may be brought to the attention of the GMC. That cannot be good for the public at large, and it is inconceivable that individual patients will interpret the use of such information as an infringement of their rights. The sharing of information between responsible professionals in organisations with high standards of confidentiality for such important purposes is not just reasonable but essential. I hope that the Minister will consider the implications of this amendment in a very favourable light.