Swine Flu — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:23 pm on 29th April 2009.

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Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative 3:23 pm, 29th April 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their latest assessment of the outbreak of swine flu and its impact on the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Darzi of Denham Lord Darzi of Denham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, with the changing nature of issues around the swine flu, I apologise to the House if my Answer might seem slightly long. On 27 April, the WHO issued a communication on swine flu and, later in the day, raised the level of influenza pandemic from alert phase 3 to alert phase 4. That recognises that the situation has taken a significant step towards a pandemic. It still does not mean that a pandemic is inevitable, but rather that the threat is increasing. A pandemic is declared only when the WHO raises the pandemic alert to level 6.

As the Prime Minister announced earlier today, we can report five confirmed cases: two adults in Scotland; a 12 year-old in Devon, who travelled on the same plane as the Scottish couple; one adult in London and one adult from Birmingham, both of whom travelled from Mexico when symptomatic. All these infections were acquired from Mexico. In total, 76 cases are under investigation. In response, the Prime Minister also announced further procurements of antiviral stock in addition to face masks and antibiotics. We are also contacting every household in the UK, using television and newspapers, to let people know what they can do to protect themselves and their families.

Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord does not need to apologise for giving a very full Answer on a very serious subject. We recognise that a Statement will be made later this evening. However, I would like to pick up what he said about the distribution of antivirals such as Tamiflu. He will know that earlier this year his department gave evidence on pandemic flu to the Select Committee in a long and very detailed paper headed, Plans for Distribution of Antivirals and Testing of Plans. Does he recognise that the key feature of that is a national pandemic flu line service? We were told that this would be,

"available ... in the event of a pandemic by April/May 2009".

But does the noble Lord recollect that on Monday he told the House that the flu line,

"will not be ready until the autumn"?—[Hansard, 27/4/09; col. 42.]

What will be the arrangements for the distribution of Tamiflu before the flu line is up and running?

Photo of Lord Darzi of Denham Lord Darzi of Denham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, as I said on Monday, the flu line will be up and running in autumn of this year. We have interim measures through NHS Direct to deal with the communications side of obtaining Tamiflu. The NHS is ready for this. We have included it as part of our operating framework. I reassure the noble Lord that COBRA is also looking at this very carefully. We will make further announcements over the next few days.

Photo of Lord May of Oxford Lord May of Oxford Crossbench

My Lords, expert opinion is agreed that the best use of antivirals against flu is targeted local prophylaxis; giving them to contacts in the family and the schoolroom. A month ago, the head of the relevant section of the Health Protection Agency agreed that before the Select Committee, and yet a month ago the policy of the Health Department remained to give this to people who were symptomatic with flu. Can the noble Lord assure us that this policy has either changed in the past month or will be the subject of urgent review?

Photo of Lord Darzi of Denham Lord Darzi of Denham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord in relation to the scientific basis of prophylaxis. Our policy is for the HPA to make that risk assessment. Post-exposure prophylaxis is part of that policy. I reassure the House that the 50 close contacts with the young girl whom I mentioned earlier are being given antivirals. The whole school year, totalling 230 children, were also given post-exposure chemoprophylaxis.

Photo of Lord Kirkhill Lord Kirkhill Labour

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that when he mentions NHS Direct, that includes NHS 24 in Scotland?

Photo of Lord Darzi of Denham Lord Darzi of Denham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, I believe that my responsibilities do not extend as far as Scotland. However, I am more than happy to look into that. I understand that the Minister in Scotland has already made announcements in relation to their plans in managing the communications side.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Spokesperson for Health

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that there are still stocks available of last winter's flu vaccine against the H1N1 influenza A virus? Can he further confirm that it imparts some immunity on young people—not all, because it is not specific for swine flu? Can we, therefore, not use those stocks up in vaccinating our young people who are said to be most at risk?

Photo of Lord Darzi of Denham Lord Darzi of Denham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, we do have a stockpile of 430 million vaccinations in relation to seasonal influenza. The issue is not the stockpile but whether there is evidence that it will have any impact. We are constantly consulting scientists at the moment to see whether there is any benefit of using that stockpile. I agree with the point, but we need the scientific evidence before we start giving people prophylaxis.

Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative

My Lords, the Science and Technology Committee has also been told by the department that primary care trusts in England are arranging 3,221 collection points for antivirals, yet we have seen a large number of reports in the press in the past couple of days that GPs do not seem to be fully aware of the plans. In view of the fact that antivirals should be given, wherever possible, within 48 hours of the symptoms becoming clear, can the Minister assure us that urgent steps are now being taken to ensure that in all PCTs the information is available to GPs?

Photo of Lord Darzi of Denham Lord Darzi of Denham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health)

My Lords, these stockpiles will be in every PCT and we have plans in which we will let every general practitioner know where the stockpile and the distribution sites are. That announcement will be made in due course, as I highlighted earlier.