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House of Commons Hansard
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Swine Influenza Vaccines
23 February 2010
Volume 506
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9. How much his Department spent on procurement of swine influenza vaccines in the last 12 months; and how many units of vaccine have been procured. [317479]

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As of Friday, the total amount of swine flu vaccine delivered to the UK from Baxter and GSK is approximately 38 million doses. Because contractual negotiations with GlaxoSmithKline are in progress and because of commercial confidentiality clauses in the contract, it is not possible to give a final figure on spend at this stage, but I will update the House in due course.

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There were a number of odd developments during the swine flu pandemic—not least the fact that very little effort was put into stopping people coming into the country with swine flu, and the fact that people who had it were prevented from leaving. Is the Secretary of State willing to place in the Library the advice received by the Department that justified their decisions on swine flu, in connection with the vaccine in particular but in connection with other issues as well?

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I will publish all the advice in due course so that the hon. Gentleman can see why those decisions were made. However, I ask him to cast his mind back to last summer in Birmingham, when there was a considerable increase in the number of cases over a very short period. That was a difficult situation. He must also not forget that there have been 309 deaths from swine flu in England, and that there are still people suffering from it in hospital today.

I believe that we took the right action. We made preparations, and we got the country through safely. We minimised the amount of disease and suffering as best we could. We will now learn the lessons of the decisions that were made, but I believe that we made the right decisions at the right time.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree with many in this House that “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” and that we must always err on the side of the safety-first approach of making sure we have sufficient vaccine, if we can possibly procure it, for our citizens to keep them safe?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Many people are being very wise after the event, but last April the situation appeared to everybody to be very different; we had a new virus spreading on a worldwide basis, and we had little information about it—about how quickly it would spread and its severity. In such circumstances, the only prudent course of action is to plan with safety first in mind, of course, but I am sure that when we reflect on these events, we will realise that there are things we might look at again, and ways we might further improve our pandemic planning in advance of any possible future pandemic. However, I think that, overall, the right decisions were taken, and that the NHS coped very well with a difficult situation.

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Can the Secretary of State explain why there was a break clause in the contract with Baxter Healthcare, but there was no equivalent break clause in the contract with GlaxoSmithKline?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, as part of our planning we had entered into advance purchase agreements so that the UK was able to get swift access to the vaccine in the event of a pandemic. This was a good part of our preparations, and it put us at the very front of the queue internationally for swine flu vaccine. At the time, I do not remember anybody saying that that was the wrong thing to do. There were different arrangements with Baxter and GSK, which then led to different contracts. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to go into all the details of those contracts on the Floor of the House, but I can assure him that at all times we have sought to get maximum value for money for the public while also protecting the public. We are still in negotiations with GSK, and once they are concluded we will be able to come back to the hon. Gentleman and give him a full report.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State, and, indeed, he knows that we called in this House for the establishment of advance purchase contracts for the vaccine and supported the action in implementing that, but we did so on the basis that break clauses would be included in the contracts. The Secretary of State also knows that last summer the question whether there would be a population-wide vaccination programme should have determined whether we were going to procure all the 90 million doses or a smaller amount. With Baxter, we could put in a break clause; with GSK, we could not. That is a fundamental difference between those contracts. Can the Secretary of State explain why there was no such provision in the contract with GSK?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to say there was a difference between the two contracts. However, the overriding objective that my predecessor had to achieve was to secure enough vaccines to cover the whole population, and that meant having two doses for the population because that was the advice at the time. The hon. Gentleman must now accept that securing that vaccine was the overriding priority and that a contract had to be put in place to secure vaccines on that scale. Of course there are further discussions to be had with GSK to ensure maximum value for the taxpayer, and the hon. Gentleman would expect me to be pursuing those discussions, and we are. However, the first priority was to get enough vaccine to cover the whole population, and, of course, any commercial company needs sufficient security if they are to sign a contract of that kind.

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The Secretary of State has still not explained why what was okay with Baxter Healthcare for 30 million doses was not okay with GSK for 60 million doses. Ministers have today announced in a written ministerial statement that they are transferring £200 million from the Department of Health’s capital budget to its revenue budget to meet the costs of the commitment on pandemic flu, of which the procurement of this vaccine will be a major part. The Secretary of State says he has 38 million doses; we have used 5 million. What will be the total cost of the procurement of these vaccines, and what capital projects will be cut back now in the NHS to pay for that?

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May I gently caution the hon. Gentleman about being wise after the event? In proceeding on this, we communicated with him at all times. We explained the actions we were taking, and we took those actions in good faith at all times. May I also remind him that although we have secured a surplus, the H1N1 strain is likely to replace seasonal flu as the main strain this year?

We will continue to have a need for this vaccine, so we will announce in due course the arrangements that we are putting in place to ensure that we have sufficient stock. He will know that the chief medical officer’s advice to the at-risk groups is that they continue to accept vaccination because, although the second wave has ended, there could be a third wave later in the year. For all those reasons, we will proceed with caution. However, when we have concluded the negotiations with GSK we will set out exactly what we have done, so that the House can see the decisions we took and why we took them.