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Influenza Pandemic

Volume 492: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2009

4. What contingency plan his Department has in the event of an influenza pandemic; and if he will make a statement. (274101)

We have been preparing for a flu pandemic for the past five years. On 22 November 2007, I made a statement to the House introducing the national framework for responding to an influenza pandemic. That document, jointly published by the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office civil contingencies secretariat, is the cross-Government strategy for dealing with an influenza pandemic. The planning process is supported by exercises carried out by the Health Protection Agency. The framework is guiding our response to the current H1N1 outbreak, and the World Health Organisation has recognised Britain as one of the best-prepared countries in the world.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. We are all glad that the spread of the flu seems to have slowed, at least for the moment; we are particularly glad that, rather puzzlingly, there have been no fatalities outside Mexico. I do not know why that should be, but there it is.

Perhaps there have been one or two; I have been corrected by my hon. Friend on the Front Bench.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if an awful pandemic were to occur, an important tool in dealing with it would be the national flu helpline? Will he explain why the Government have announced that the helpline will not be operative until the end of this year?

First, I should correct the hon. Gentleman. There have been three deaths in the USA, one in Canada and one in Costa Rica. However, it is true that the majority of deaths have been in Mexico. I am pleased to say that we will have a debate on this issue on Thursday. When we discussed it last Thursday, the issue of the flu line came up. I say again that we agreed the contract with British Telecom last December. It will be ready in October, after the most thorough testing. No country in the world has such a sophisticated system. Its purpose is to enable people who are symptomatic to go home and stay there, ring a number or go on the internet, go through an algorithm, get a code and send someone else to collect their antivirals. In that way, people will not walk around spreading the disease further.

No country in the world has such a system. We have the opportunity to introduce it in October, but, as I said to the House last week, there was no way we were going to introduce it without the most thorough testing. The last thing we need in the middle of a pandemic is the breakdown of an IT system—and we have a certain amount of history on that.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there have been two cases of swine flu in my county, one of them in my constituency? One of the issues is how people can best protect themselves and know where the outbreaks are without anybody’s confidentiality being breached and without an excessive sense of panic being created. Can my right hon. Friend say how he would balance those issues, so that people know enough to protect themselves without there being undue concern about the number of cases and where they are?

That has been working well. The Health Protection Agency has been doing the contact tracing—tracing those who have been in close contact with people who are symptomatic. When we publish the information about new cases, the agency makes sure that the families and close relatives have been advised first, so that the information is known to them first, and then we do the contact tracing.

Generally, it is no secret when there has been an outbreak. One of our worries has been the problems that children have been having. Text messages have been sent and there has been bullying around the idea that people from the school concerned have some kind of plague. That has caused the Health Protection Agency not to name publicly the schools involved. I guess that, locally, the schools will become known pretty quickly, not least because they generally close for seven days. But people are trying to be sensitive about the information and to ensure that the policy of containment works and that people support it. Incidentally, all our evidence from the public—most recently this morning—is that between 75 and 80 per cent. of them think that what I have described is the right way to deal with the outbreak.

Castle View school on Canvey Island in my constituency is now closed following five outbreaks of swine influenza. I congratulate the Government on their strategy and in particular on their building up of Tamiflu stocks. Will the Secretary of State estimate how long it will take for a specific H1N1 vaccine to become available? What research is being done on that right now? Will he confirm how long schools that are closed must remain closed, so that our constituents can start to plan again?

I hope to be able to say more about the vaccine in the debate on Thursday. British scientists at the Health Protection Agency in Colindale have identified the strain—the so-called isolate. They have passed that to Potters Bar, where the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control will now do the work of producing a vaccine. That work has been completed, and the next stage is what I hope to be able to tell Parliament about on Thursday. Efforts are going on in this country and abroad to ensure that we get a vaccine developed as quickly as possible. Of course, it would take at least five to six months to manufacture and produce it. However, we hope that having taken the first step, whereby we have identified the isolate, the next stage—to get the vaccine from that—is very close.

Accepting that if swine flu does take place, the elderly will be particularly vulnerable, will my right hon. Friend not only acknowledge that fact but explain to the House what systems are in place locally within the community to ensure that an early warning system is available and that medical help is immediate?

The elderly are obviously a prime concern, particularly if they are living on their own and need someone else to get their antivirals for them. At the moment, the evidence from Mexico—the HPA has just finished a week there and has brought back lots of detailed information—is that the people who are dying are aged between 25 and 50. My hon. Friend raises an important point. We must try to produce the vaccine that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about without interfering with the production of seasonal flu vaccines, which are to a great extent used by the elderly, but also by people with chronic conditions. We are aware of the issues with the elderly. We are considering who would be the priorities for a vaccine once it starts coming through; the elderly may or may not be in that category once we know more about this disease.