It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, on International Women’s Day. I congratulate Tracy Brabin on securing this, her first Westminster Hall debate, on an important and sensitive topic. She gave a moving account of her constituent Di and her son Sam’s battles with narcolepsy and cataplexy, as did my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy on behalf of his constituent, Ben Foy. The hon. Lady clearly articulated what she would like to see happen as a result of the debate. I am grateful to her for her opening statement in support of the life-saving effects of vaccinations and her recognition of our world-class immunisation programme. It is important that we remember that as we discuss some of the issues at hand today.
As the hon. Lady has focused the debate on the specific vaccine Pandemrix, it is right that I start by explaining why it came to be used in the UK, although she did outline some of that. Pandemrix was developed for use in a flu pandemic. Flu pandemics pose a challenge for any Government, and they occur when a flu virus emerges and spreads around the world and most people do not have immunity.
Each pandemic is different. The nature of the virus, the population groups most likely to be affected and its impact cannot be known in advance. It is impossible to predict the severity of a new virus strain. Large swathes of the population can become infected over a relatively short period of time if transmission spreads rapidly. The potential impact of pandemic flu makes effective measures to limit the spread and morbidity of virus infection a public health priority. Countermeasures are employed in combination, including vaccination when possible.
As the hon. Lady knows, the most recent flu pandemic was H1N1 swine flu in 2009-10. All Governments have a responsibility to protect public health in such a situation. The decision to commence the swine flu vaccination programme, made by previous Ministers in 2009, was based, as she said, on the expert advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Pandemrix was one of two vaccines used in the UK in that pandemic. Thankfully, the H1N1 strain of swine flu turned out to be relatively mild, but we should not forget that it still caused more than 450 deaths in the UK.
The hon. Lady clearly described the consequences and impact that narcolepsy and cataplexy have on Sam’s life. I assure her that I do not underestimate how distressing narcolepsy and cataplexy can be. As someone who lives with a complex chronic illness that causes me to collapse in the street at times, I know how vulnerable that can make both those who live with the condition and their families feel. It is important that anyone who lives with narcolepsy receives the appropriate care and attention to manage their condition.
The hon. Lady set out her understanding that Pandemrix has caused narcolepsy for some individuals, including her constituent, Sam, as did my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer in the case of his constituent, Ben Foy. Causation is currently one of the issues in dispute in the ongoing legal proceedings in which the Department of Health is involved, alongside the claimants and the vaccine manufacturer. Those legal proceedings are much wider than the issue of causation and cover many other areas. Until those proceedings are resolved one way or the other, it is not appropriate for me to comment on that in detail; it is a process that should be allowed to continue without interference from a politician. However, I assure the hon. Lady that I am deeply concerned about this and will keep a close eye on it as Minister.
The hon. Lady wants to ensure that Sam and people like him are adequately compensated for the development of narcolepsy following Pandemrix vaccination, and has set out the changes she would like to see to the vaccine damage payments scheme to address that. It is important to be clear that the VDPS was not designed to be a compensation scheme; there is no assessment of what losses were actually suffered. Someone who wishes to seek compensation needs to pursue a claim against the vaccine’s manufacturer. There are ongoing personal injury claims in this case, and it is important that those proceed without interference as well.
The VDPS was established in 1979 to help ease the burdens of individuals for whom, on very rare occasions, vaccination has caused severe disablement. The extent of that disablement is assessed on the same basis as for the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme. The VDPS provides a one-off, tax-free lump sum payment of £120,000 for those who are severely disabled as a result of a vaccination against the diseases listed in the 1979 Act and diseases that have been specified since 1979 by various statutory instruments. Those vaccinations are within the childhood vaccination schemes.
The hon. Lady noted that Sam’s mother applied to the VDPS but her claim was rejected. The hon. Lady claims that was because Sam was not severely disabled enough, but my understanding is that, although the DWP agrees that Pandemrix can cause narcolepsy in theory, it did not do so in this particular case; the DWP did not accept causation in this particular case, rather than its not accepting that Sam was severely disabled enough. I have a different understanding from the hon. Lady, so perhaps she would like to write to the DWP for clarification.
I should also clarify that the Department of Health is responsible for policy and legislation for the VDPS, but the DWP is responsible for assessing claims, making payments against successful claims and handling appeals. To qualify for a VDPS payment, a claimant has to meet two legal tests. The first is to establish, on a balance of probabilities, that the disablement was caused by vaccination against a disease covered by the VDPS, and the second is that the resulting disablement is severe—60% or more—assessed on the same basis as for the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme.
Decisions take into account advice from medical advisers who are fully registered doctors with a licence to practise and who have also undertaken special training in disability assessment. They review each claimant’s medical records and advise the DWP’s decision maker on causation and disablement. It is therefore important that the hon. Lady clarifies what happened in her constituent’s case, as it is for my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer in the case of his constituent.
Each claim is decided upon its own evidence. If a claimant disagrees with the outcome, they have the right to request a reversal of the Secretary of State’s decision. There is then an opportunity to provide further information to support that request, and the case will be reconsidered. They can also challenge the decision to reject the claim through a first-tier tribunal.
The hon. Lady also raised more general questions about how the VDPS operates and has suggested changes that she thinks are needed. I will address as many of those questions as I can in turn; if I do not get to some of them, I will write to her. She suggested that anyone who has had a Pandemrix vaccination should be eligible for a VDPS payment if they have developed narcolepsy following a vaccination. The Vaccine Damage Payments Act is based on diseases, not specific vaccines, so it is not possible to include Pandemrix in that legislation. However, the list of specified diseases covered by the Act already includes pandemic influenza A—swine flu—for which vaccination was administered from
The hon. Lady also made the case that the level of the VDPS payment is not adequate to meet the needs of someone with narcolepsy. As I mentioned earlier, that is because the VDPS is not a compensation scheme and the sum paid is not based on an assessment of losses; it is a one-off, tax-free lump sum payment to help ease the burden. It must be seen in the context of wider help and support for the severely disabled within our benefits system, but payments through the scheme cannot meet all of their needs. There are no plans at the moment to increase the value of the payment, but as I mentioned earlier, it is open to individuals to pursue personal injury claims for compensation, in addition to applying to the VDPS.
Jim Shannon raised the recent Court of Appeal judgment on how disablement is assessed. I can confirm that the Government will not appeal that decision. DWP medical advisers will now consider future prognosis in addition to the current level of disablement when assessing claims. Previous cases in which causation has been accepted will be reconsidered in accordance with the Court of Appeal judgment where claimants consent to a further investigation of their medical history.