Asthma Outcomes — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 7th December 2021.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:30 am, 7th December 2021

I absolutely agree. The hon. Member is making points that we all agree with. I am glad she has brought that to my attention. I come to London to work and am aware of the air pollution and the steps that the Mayor of London and others that are taking to try to address that, by restricting the number and type of cars coming in. As the hon. Lady rightly said, people have died in London from air pollution and we must address that. In large metropolises and population clusters, where vehicles and the economy are concentrated, air pollution is important.

I am fortunate to have lived in the countryside all my life. It means that when I go out of my back door there are green fields and the neighbours are about half a mile away, so there is a distance between us as well. However, some 14,000 vehicles a day pass by us on the road—the A20 from Ards to Portaferry—which, by its very nature, shows where the problem is.

Asthma exacerbations lead to over 77,000 hospital admissions each year. It is estimated that asthma leads to a direct cost to the NHS of £1 billion and an indirect cost to society of £1.2 billion due to time off work and loss of productivity. This goes back to the intervention by Margaret Ferrier when she referred to early diagnosis which can stop people losing work days and reduce the cost to the NHS. These factors cannot ignored be when it comes to addressing the health issues and helping to balance the books.

This year, the APPG’s intention was to produce a one-year-on report to highlight and emphasise the tremendous work that has been carried out by all those working in asthma. We intended to highlight the progress that has taken place in the past year, the actions of the Government, and any further areas that needed to be reconsidered. Our job will be to continue to note the progress—it may not be the progress we would like to see—and speak to the Minister to see how we can change that. However, covid changed everything. It changed our thinking dramatically. It has had a devastating effect on many lives and has impacted on asthma care. It affected the scope of our latest report, as well as concentrating on asthma outcomes one year on. We have also looked carefully at the impact of covid on respiratory health and asthma in particular.

I have the greatest admiration and respect for all those working in the NHS during these difficult times, especially those in respiratory health, which has been the hardest hit. They are all heroes—that word is used often, but it is true here—and a credit to the profession and the NHS. We are grateful and thankful to them all.

In the past year, covid has had an impact on those with asthma, COPD and the complex health needs that can sometimes be exacerbated by covid, leading to further difficulties. The past year has been difficult for every one of us. We have probably all lost loved ones to covid. In October last year, we lost my mother-in-law, who had complex needs. Covid took her, and we still miss her.

Today, I want to concentrate on the three critical issues identified by the clinical advisers who addressed our inquiry and shared their expertise and evidence. The first issue is the overuse of salbutamol reliever inhalers. We are not saying that people should not have them. That is not what the inquiry said or what the APPG is saying. We are looking at the potential overuse of those inhalers. The second issue is the new unified asthma guidelines. Thirdly, we need better use of biologics.

Prior to the covid pandemic, responders to our inquiry last year identified the overuse of salbutamol inhalers—the blue, not brown, inhalers—and oral corticosteroids as the biggest area of concern and the most important cause of exacerbation and unnecessary asthma deaths. In our report, the APPG also cited numerous studies that have shown that over-reliance on salbutamol may lead to the reduced use of preventer inhalers and to a greater risk of preventable attacks. Regular overuse has also been shown to increase the risk of asthma attacks, hospitalisations and deaths. The Department of Health and Social Care needs to look at the overuse of medications and whether that may do more harm. The evidence in this case seems to show that this is one of those situations.

A recent study by the SABA use in asthma global programme—the SABINA programme—found that high use of such inhalers was frequent among UK patients and

“was associated with a significant increase in exacerbations” and in reliance on asthma-related healthcare. It stated the need to align SABA inhaler prescription practices with current treatment recommendations.

Some 22.5 million of these inhalers are dispensed to asthma patients each year, an average of five per diagnosed patient. Way back in 2019, before covid, and during one of the few times in my life I have had health issues, there was a week when I could not even come to Westminster, because the doctor told me it would not be safe to travel. My chest and breathing were at a level where he advised me not to travel. At that time, I was on the blue inhalers. I think I had three over that 11 or 12-week period. I may have had a wee bit too much, although I did not realise that at the time. That is one of the issues highlighted by the inquiry.

Patients using excessive numbers of inhalers should be flagged, identified and immediately seen by an asthma-trained clinician. I bring it to the Minister’s attention that we think it is time to rethink asthma treatment and get this right for patients and constituents across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There are innovative approaches that demonstrate SABA-reduction.

A 2018 study in The Lancet suggested a maintenance and reliever treatment, with a combination steroid and long-acting beta-agonist, which would allow SABA-free treatment. That could be an effective way to reduce SABA overuse among patients, where clinically appropriate. As ever, it must always be done in consultation with and under the guidance of your doctor and those with health expertise.

The Sentinel project undertaken in Hull and East Yorkshire improved outcomes for adult asthma patients by identifying SABA over-reliance and appropriate implementation of a MART strategy. There is a pilot scheme, which could be the marker, the guide, the standard, the level for the rest of the United Kingdom. Data from that pilot Sentinel study demonstrated that MART can substantially reduce the SABA prescribing.

To ensure that that happens, it is important to restore the asthma reviews, which were hit badly by covid. It is time, ever mindful that covid is our priority, to look at the other issues in the United Kingdom, and asthma is one of them. Asthma UK’s latest annual survey showed that 66% of people with asthma are not receiving basic care for their condition, and that that level has fallen, for the first time in eight years. Minister, what has been done to address that fall? How can we do it better?

An annual asthma review is an important component of addressing that. I should be grateful if the Minister would update us on the progress that has been made on restoring the annual reviews. When we are responding to health issues in the United Kingdom we often need data, so it is important to have that in place.

We also suggested in our APPG report that primary care incentives might be necessary to drive the reduction of SABA use. We stated that the QOF—quality and outcomes framework—or the investment and impact fund have the potential to help with that. The patient pathway is also an important method to reduce SABA use, which brings me to my second point—the new unified guidelines.

Last year, in our inquiry, we analysed the challenges faced by clinicians in treating severe asthma. We found that almost all the experts identified the existence of multiple asthma guidelines as confusing, unnecessary and a cause for concern. If they are confusing to experts, and therefore for our constituents and patients too, we need to have a singular approach. Again, I look to the Minister for a response.

The Royal College of Physicians told us in its submission that

“national audit data collected from England, Scotland and Wales indicates that the standard of care against national guidelines (NICE and BTS) and recommendations from NRAD are variable and on the whole substandard.”

There is a need to get things right and singular. As a consequence, the APPG strongly welcomed the commitment to and the ongoing work to produce unified guidelines as a necessary step forward to improve asthma outcomes. We felt that it was especially important for our time-stretched clinicians that all guidelines on asthma should be in one place.

The unified guidelines were delayed due to covid, but are due in 2023. Our main concern, however, is that we understand that the draft scope for the new unified guidelines does not include severe asthma. I bring that to the Minister’s attention, because we feel it should. Perhaps the Minister will give us some indication of what will be done to address that, because that appears to me to be a serious omission, and others will agree.

It is unclear how any guidelines could be described as “unified” when the most serious type of asthma is not included. I have a concern, a question mark in mind, about that. It is especially puzzling when we consider that the existing NICE, British Thoracic Society/Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network, Global Initiative for Asthma and NRAD—national review of asthma deaths—guidelines all give similar criteria for referring a patient for severe asthma.

If severe asthma is excluded from the scope of the unified guidelines, the concern is that newer treatment options will not be addressed properly, which takes us back to the intervention by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West. This is about early diagnosis and treatment at an early stage. If we do not get that right, we will have complications and problems later.

Those newer treatment options include the use of biologic treatments and the latest best practice in phenotyping, which were strongly recommended by both clinicians and severe asthma patients in our inquiry. The long-term plan states:

“We will do more to support those with respiratory disease to receive and use the right medication”,

but without severe asthma included in the unified guidelines, that is unlikely to happen. How can we make that happen, rather than being unlikely? Will the Minister therefore give me, the House and those in and outside this Chamber the thinking behind that omission? What is the possibility of adding severe asthma back into the discussion? If we can retrieve that and bring it back in, I will be pleased. I also wonder what can be done while we wait for the new guidelines. Four sets of guidelines are confusing for clinicians. Surely it would be preferable not to wait until 2023 for clarity. We need to act today—for the three people who die every day due to asthma. That is the imperative. Is there any way that the Minister can reflect on that and give consideration to updated living guidelines to reflect current best practice and treatment?

Unified or updated guidelines can materially affect my third point on biologic therapies. They are life-saving treatments for people with certain types of severe asthma and asthma that is difficult to control. They can reduce asthma attacks in severe asthma, reduce the need for steroids and improve symptoms. At present, they are only offered to patients through the specialist asthma clinics. There was strong support in our report last year for the appropriate use of biologic treatments and we supported the extension of prescribing to secondary care clinicians for severe asthma patients. Many clinicians viewed the use of biologics as a better alternative to traditional oral corticosteroid treatment for severe asthma and we received evidence that a large majority of patients who are eligible still do not have access to them.

Asthma UK suggests that

“82% of difficult and severe asthma patients are often not being referred at the right time, or sometimes, not at all.”

That is hard to believe. Asthma UK and BLF also told us that the current NHS asthma care pathway does not take full account of the availability of the new treatments. So most people with severe asthma are still reliant on OCS. According to Asthma UK, three in four people eligible for biologic treatment are still not accessing it and thousands of patients are having to endure treatments that are considered inadequate and suffer unnecessary side effects.

That is linked to the Government’s five highest health gains programme, which introduced a commitment by the UK to match or surpass comparative nations in the access to new and innovative medicines in five clinical areas, one of which is severe asthma biologics. The scheme committed to the objective of

“reaching the upper quartile of uptake for 5 highest health gain categories” during the course of the first half of the scheme, by mid-2021. We applaud the Government’s initiative and action on that to date, but the deadline has clearly been missed. New data commissioned by NHS England has shown that the UK is far from the upper quartile and confirms that we are currently ninth out of 10 with regard to comparator countries. We must improve that. We must get better and do that for our patients. We also recommended extending the Accelerated Access Collaborative’s severe asthma programme, and increasing resources to increase capacity for prescribing biologics will be important for achieving that. Will the Minister give a renewed commitment to achieving upper quartile access and set a new, clearly defined target for when and how that will be achieved?

In October 2021 the Government announced 40 new community diagnostic centres, which are set to open across England in a range of settings, from local shopping centres to football stadiums, to offer new and earlier diagnostic tests closer to patients’ homes. I want to put on record my thanks to the Government and the Minister for that commitment. It is clearly there and we thank him for that. However, we cannot make it a postcode lottery. If it can happen here in London, it should happen in Cardiff, Newcastle, Liverpool and everywhere else. Nowhere should be any different, so I would like to see that happening.

The Government have stated that the new centres will be backed by a substantial amount of money—a £350 million investment—and will provide around 2.8 million scans in the first full year of operation. They are designed to assist with earlier diagnosis through faster and easier access to diagnostic tests for symptoms in areas including breathlessness, cancer and ophthalmology. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced an additional £5.9 billion to tackle the backlog of general diagnostic tests to deliver more checks, more scans and more treatment. The intention is to increase the number of diagnostic centres to at least 100 and I understand that each one will include a multidisciplinary team of staff, including nurses and radiographers, and will be open seven days a week. The Government and the Minister are to be commended for that, and I warmly welcome it and the funding that will be allocated. I hope they can help address the covid-imposed inequalities that we have seen across the country in asthma care and treatment. Will the centres be fully staffed, will they have trained staff and will they be in place?

I also welcome the breathlessness diagnostics, which will be included in the centres. It is essential that they should be equipped to diagnose any cause of breathlessness, whether cardiovascular, lung cancer, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which my hon. Friend Mr Campbell mentioned. It is also important to establish an appropriate referral system from the centres, should further investigation be warranted. Will the Minister confirm that the FeNO and spirometry tests will be included in all centres, to allow for fuller asthma assessments?

I look forward to the contributions from other Members, and I thank those who intervened on my speech. I very much look forward to the Front-Bench contributions, particularly from the Minister.