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Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2003

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What resources the Health Protection Agency will devote to bio-defence issues; and if he will make a statement. [109811]

The Health Protection Agency brings together for the first time the combined resources of the key organisations to fight potential threats to human health. The level of activity and resource deployed against biological threats will vary depending on the nature and scale of the threat.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but does she recognise the concern that, because the Health Protection Agency deals with all infectious diseases, including AIDS and tuberculosis, bio-defence is only a small part of its responsibilities? Is it right to have separate responsibilities for bio-defence for our armed forces and for the civilian population? What reassurance can the Minister give that bio-defence, which is vital at this difficult time, will get real attention from the Government? Would it not provide more reassurance if we had a specific Minister with responsibility for homeland security, including bio-defence issues?

This is an extremely important issue, and I am delighted to give the reassurance that the hon. Gentleman seeks. We are bringing together in one agency all the different agencies that have been responsible for chemical and biological issues, including the Public Health Laboratory Service and the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, as recommended by the chief medical officer in his strategy "Getting Ahead of the Curve". That brings together the skills, expertise, knowledge, facilities and resources, so that our services for health protection can be much more effective than they would be if they were spread out over a number of different agencies, as in the past. Whether the threat is naturally occurring, such as SARS, or a deliberate release of a biological agent, the same good, robust public health systems must be in place for notification, surveillance, reporting and treatment. Thanks to the NHS and the new Health Protection Agency, services in this country are some of the best in the world.

When highly contagious diseases were much more common in Britain than they are now, the national health service had the capacity to cope. We even had isolation hospitals, which are now closed. Given the pressure on capacity throughout the national health service, can my hon. Friend assure me that we could provide the beds to cope with a serious outbreak of a disease such as SARS without resorting to the measures that China is having to adopt by building extra capacity?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have 25 centres with specialist cross-infection facilities. So far, the strategy that we have adopted in this country is proving extremely effective. We ensure that the whole of the NHS has proper information, is on alert and is in touch daily, and we provide the public with information about what they can do. That enables us to contain cases. We give people suspected of SARS appropriate treatment and ensure that they are isolated, so as to minimise the contacts that they make.