[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered elimination of hepatitis C.
I should tell the House at the outset that I am not really the instigator of this opportunity to debate hepatitis. The colleague who had succeeded in securing the motion is not able to be here, but I am delighted to share my thoughts with the House.
I was a member of the Health Committee from 1998 to 2007, and during that time we certainly spent a lot of time considering hepatitis. I am also the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on liver health. I have been the chairman now for some 13 years—simply because I do not think anyone else wants to take on the mantle, to be frank. When we set up our all-party parliamentary group, we looked for a celebrity to head it all, as one does, and we chose George Best. The House might feel that George Best was an unlikely person to head up the charity, but at that time he was a reformed character, and he did a lot of good in those early years. Unfortunately, as we all know, a great toll was taken on his health and, sadly, he died.
We then looked for another celebrity, and—what a joy—Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, who was a wonderful and remarkable lady, became our patron. She died in 2007. The House may know that she contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion in 1971 and was unaware that she was living with the disease until 2004. A routine blood test revealed the diagnosis. She was a tireless campaigner, and we owe her a great debt of gratitude, but since 2007 we have struggled to find a patron to head up the organisation as president. If colleagues have any ideas, I know our APPG would be glad to hear from them.
The APPG recently conducted an inquiry into the elimination of hepatitis, and in March it launched a report entitled “Eliminating Hepatitis C in England”. It is my intention to refer to the report’s recommendations throughout my speech. We have an excellent Minister here, and I hope that both he and the shadow spokesperson have had sight of the report. If not, we will ensure that they get it in full; perhaps they could come back with their suggestions on how we might take the recommendations forward.
In our report, we suggest raising awareness, prevention, testing and diagnosis, care and treatment, funding and monitoring progress, so we have covered every single aspect. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Charles Gore, the former head of the World Hepatitis Alliance, and to the secretariat of the APPG, the Hepatitis C Trust, for all their assistance. They have been wonderful in all the work they do for us, ensuring that our group is effective.
On 14 December, I visited Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth—not because I had been sent to prison but, ironically, to accompany the Minister who has resigned from the Government today, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), although I do not think his resignation was the result of our visit. It was a very good visit indeed, and of course it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan).
The visit allowed us to tour the secondary screening and healthcare facilities in the prison and to participate in a roundtable on the subject of the hep C virus and the importance of testing and of attending appointments. It was a wonderful visit; I pay tribute to the governor, and I know the Government are focused on the excellent work that is being done there. We talked to inmates and the governor, and the Ministry of Justice, NHS England, the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England were represented.
Perhaps the Minister and I should have compared notes, but I will say a little bit about what hepatitis C is. As I am sure that most hon. Members are aware, it is a blood-borne disease that affects the liver. It can subsequently lead to liver cirrhosis and cancer, and it has been linked to cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal pain, kidney issues and mental health problems. I see we have two practitioners present in the Chamber; they might want to contradict me if they think I have got the cause of hepatitis C wrong.
The virus is said to chronically infect some 71 million people globally. Sadly, 214,000 of them reside in the United Kingdom. That is why I welcome the United Kingdom’s decision to join 193 other states in signing the World Health Organisation’s global health sector strategy on viral hepatitis in 2016. It has the principal aim of eliminating hepatitis C as a major public health threat by 2030—and I believe that if we are serious about that, we can do it. At least one Member of the House of Lords, who regularly attends our APPGs, has the illness himself. He speaks with great passion in the other House about the challenges he faces.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I also welcome the target announced by NHS England in January of eliminating hepatitis C by 2025, five years ahead of the WHO. However, many problems surround the virus and its elimination, and confusion persists over how the virus is spread. Many people do not appreciate that it is spread by blood-to-blood contact. Instead, some still believe it can be spread by sneezing, coughing, spitting or other forms of physical contact. I am advised that that is not the case and it is only blood-to-blood.
Furthermore, it is estimated that between 40% and 50% of the approximate number of people chronically infected with the virus in England do not know they have it. At the start of the debate, I pointed out that Anita Roddick did not know she had it until she was tested in 2004. Between 64,000 and 80,000 people are living in England without the knowledge that they have the virus. Even more worrying is the Polaris Observatory’s prediction that the UK is set to miss the WHO target of eliminating hepatitis C by 2030.
I welcome the efforts the Government are making to tackle this problem. I do not want to digress too much, but there is still the outstanding problem of contaminated blood. The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do, because we have had many debates on this in the House of Commons. Even the previous Prime Minister said he was going to do something, but nothing has really happened yet, and there have also been allegations that some of the records—for want of a better term—have disappeared somewhere. We asked for an inquiry into that in the last Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) has done a fantastic job in bringing this issue to the attention of the whole House, but we must not take our eye off the ball. The hon. Gentleman is certainly right to remind me how important that issue is.
This country unfortunately lags behind Australia, Brazil, Georgia, Egypt, Germany, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands and Qatar, which are all predicted to eliminate the virus within the proposed timeframe. I have said to my hon. Friend the Minister that we cannot really compare those countries with the UK, but it would be good if we could perhaps make even more progress on eliminating hepatitis C in this country. In the words of Polaris Observatory, the UK is “working towards elimination” of hepatitis C.
The APPG’s report highlighted awareness. First of all, it noted that awareness of hepatitis C has gradually improved in recent years, which we celebrate. However, awareness is still relatively low, and the stigma of having the virus remains a hurdle to people actually getting tested, diagnosed and treated in the first place. The report also found that there is low awareness of transmission risks among at-risk groups, with many people underestimating the seriousness of the condition and the urgency of accessing treatment. Even so, there are still misgivings among those with greater knowledge of the condition. Within that group, there is still a lack of awareness of new treatments that are available, and many still have worries regarding the side effects of former treatments.
The same is true of the stigma attached to the virus. Although it has decreased over time, the report found that progress still needs to be made in this area, as that stigma often acts as a barrier to people presenting themselves for testing or seeking treatment. The APPG therefore recommended initiating local and national publicity campaigns in an attempt to increase awareness. That is why I mentioned celebrities. Although I am not big on celebrities, I suppose that people do not listen so easily to us politicians—they tend to switch off. However, a so-called celebrity who is prepared to speak out publicly attracts more attention.
The report suggests two ways to increase awareness. One is among primary care professionals, through targeted testing initiatives in primary care, together with additional resources—it is always about securing more money—and support for primary care workers. The second is to raise awareness among at-risk groups through peer-to-peer messaging programmes. During my visit to HMP Wandsworth, I witnessed a peer-led group operated within the prison by inmates. It was wonderful what they had achieved.
However, it should be said that raising awareness of hepatitis C is in fact a short-term goal. Our long-term goal of eradicating the infection should see a switch to the offensive—to preventing the disease in the first place. That is what we are really aiming for.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and more generally on all his work on this issue and on promoting effective liver health during the many years he has been an MP.
On prevention, given that intravenous drug use is one of the primary causes of the transmission of hepatitis C, does he agree that at the moment a lot of drugs policy is seen far too much through the prism of the criminal justice system? We need to bring that much more into the health domain. Effective working with prisons and with the Ministry of Justice is vital if we are to get on top of this issue, reduce infection rates and provide proper treatment for people who are infected.
My hon. Friend was a Health Minister and has real expertise in this area. I shall use the expression “joined-up government”. He is absolutely right that we need Departments to work together. That is why it was so good that we visited the prison.
I may be able to help my hon. Friend here. As he knows, the drug strategy board is a cross-government committee. It met yesterday, chaired by the Home Secretary, and its members include the Justice Secretary, Health Ministers, Home Office Ministers, Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers and representatives from the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as senior police officers, representatives from the National Crime Agency and a representative of the police and crime commissioners. That board takes that cross-government look, and hepatitis C is certainly an issue I would like to see it look at.
That is excellent news. I thank my hon. Friend for that positive response to looking at this issue.
The testing and treatments initiatives in place will lead to a decline in the prevalence of the disease. However, prevention will come from identifying and educating at-risk groups. To do that, we need the help of substance misuse services, sexual health clinics and peer programmes that can educate those most vulnerable sections of society on the transmission of the virus. I am advised that these services are at risk of closure without sufficient increases in their funding. Perhaps the Minister will have some news on that when he replies.
Harm reduction is another paramount mode of prevention. If we can reduce the harm to at-risk groups, we can combat one way in which the disease is transmitted. That can be achieved by providing clean and sterilised injecting equipment. Our report also emphasises the treatment-as-prevention approach towards tackling newer infections. That approach has been successful in treating drug users and other users engaging in riskier behaviours to prevent the spread of hepatitis C.
As I said earlier, between 40% and 50% of people living with hepatitis C in England are undiagnosed, which is shocking. It is therefore vital that we continue to increase testing and diagnosis levels. It is generally believed that the vast majority of those who have been diagnosed and put in touch with support services have now been treated, which I welcome. The challenge is therefore to locate those people who remain undiagnosed. That is a tricky one; it will be a real challenge.
The hon. Gentleman talks about all of those people who have hepatitis C who have been diagnosed and treated, but my understanding is that these new antivirals are given to those with the most severe disease and have cirrhosis, rather than to everyone who is diagnosed with hepatitis C on a preventive basis. Can he clarify that?
I am concerned by what the hon. Lady says. No doubt the Minister will eventually be passed a note from his officials and will advise us on the situation. That does not seem right if it is what is happening, and I hope that the Minister will correct me if that information is wrong. It is also vital to re-engage those who have been diagnosed and have slipped through the net to the point where they are no longer in touch with those services.
The APPG thinks that the way to combat these issues is to change how we test for the virus. We recommend routine testing in substance misuse services, sexual health clinics and prisons. We also advocate increasing testing in primary care and in settings such as hostels, day centres and police custody. I know that that will not be cheap, but if it could be done it would be wonderful. Another solution is to test for hepatitis C on occasions when people are already having blood tests, which seems like common sense to me. For example, should we not consider testing people for hepatitis C while they are being tested for HIV, or when taking blood in accident and emergency centres?
Diagnosis is one thing, but accessing care is another. It is therefore essential that people who are diagnosed are referred for treatment as soon as possible, without delay. There should be a direct link between diagnosis and care. The time between diagnosis and the commencement of treatment should be minimised, to prevent patients from dropping out of the care pathway altogether. One way to achieve that would be to make treatment available immediately following diagnosis. That may be ambitious, but it is, ideally, what our APPG wants. Another way would be to streamline the referrals process. As it stands, some secondary care services will only accept referrals for treatments from general practitioners. Allowing referrals from any service at which someone might be tested and diagnosed, as the APPG recommends, would go some way to solving the problem.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. One challenge that we face is the fragmentation of the commissioning of substance misuse services and sexual health services. Those are commissioned by local authorities under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which I think we have to reflect on as a mistake in this context, as opposed to many secondary care services, which are commissioned by the NHS through clinical commissioning groups. Until we sort out that fundamental issue of commissioning, we will not be able to put in place the improvements that he suggests.
Oh dear! I say to my hon. Friend—I and, indeed, you, Mr Streeter, were in this place when we were dealing with all these issues—that the fragmentation is very worrying. My hon. Friend is right to point out that more work needs to be done on the issue.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that there is a cap on the number of patients who are allowed to receive drugs such as sofosbuvir; certainly, hepatologists I have met in recent years report having to ration it to the most severe cases. The limit was set at about 10,000 patients a year. This year, it has been increased to 15,000, but that is not a target; it is a cap. It means that despite it having been stated that 160,000 patients in England suffer from hepatitis C, it would literally take 10 to 16 years to treat them all, so this is a matter not of referral but of access to the drugs.
I said at the start that I was totally the wrong person to lead this debate. I put my hands up: I was not aware of the cap. It, too, is a little worrying, but perhaps the Minister will have an answer. I am the first to admit that money is not always available for these things, but it is worrying that we are talking about another 16 years. That is not what our all-party group wants.
If services share data more effectively, the number of patients lost to follow-up will certainly be reduced. That will minimise cases such as prisoners who have been diagnosed being released before being referred to a service that provides the treatment that they so desperately need. Another example is where general practitioners have records of people who have been diagnosed but never received treatment.
On the subject of treatment, pioneering treatments have been in place since 2014. I am advised that they are shorter in duration and have higher cure rates and fewer side effects. They have thus been instrumental in making progress in the way we treat hepatitis C, and many people have been cured thanks to the drugs available since 2014. Notwithstanding that, we should continue to maintain targets for the number of people treated and to maintain universal access to treatment for those who have been reinfected. Those targets should be local, regional and national.
There is even an argument for making the targets more aspirational. Currently, there is a target to treat 12,500 people in England per year, and the all-party group would like that to increase to 20,000 new treatment initiations. If the target is not raised, there is little chance of achieving NHS England’s target of eradicating hepatitis C by 2025. It might be more pragmatic to have initially an even greater target, which would progressively be lowered in the future. That approach would reflect the assumption that, as overall prevalence falls and approaches minimal levels, those still living with the virus will be harder to locate within the population.
Treatment should be focused in the community. That will ensure that access is not hindered for those who have difficulty accessing secondary care services. The all-party group recommends making treatment more readily available in GP clinics and pharmacies, homeless shelters, substance misuse centres, sexual health clinics and prisons.
Funding is where the crunch comes, and we have quite a bit to say on it in our report. Although new curative treatments have considerably decreased in cost, pioneering new treatments for hepatitis C are not immune to concerns. The way in which the new treatments were initially rolled out by NHS England drew criticism at the time. For example, restrictions were placed on the number of patients able to access them each year in England. Of course, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has reminded the House of that. I am sure that the Minister is aware of recent negotiations between NHS England and the industry to develop a new funding model in this area and one that does not restrict access for patients. Without such dialogue, elimination in England would be severely compromised.
The all-party group has gone further, however. We recommend that any future deal should prioritise equitable availability throughout the country—I suppose we are thinking here of the postcode lottery—that does not discriminate against patient populations. On the subject of the all-party group’s recommendations, we believe that we should continue to monitor elimination progress with reference to progressive targets. The report calls for more diverse data on the virus to be collected and shared. It is the group’s belief that that would additionally allow for improved allocation of testing and treatment resources.
As the all-party group’s report makes clear, we believe that the eradication of hepatitis C in the foreseeable future is an extremely achievable goal—we really think we can do this. It is a goal to which our international partners are committed, which is very good. Some of them are making greater progress towards achieving it than we are, for whatever reason. For the target to be met, we must change our approach to hepatitis. It is my belief that the recommendations that I have summarised today must be implemented, and as soon as possible. Failure to do so will only prolong the existence of hepatitis C in this country. We have at our disposal the means to eliminate it. Let us do that.
Let me express special thanks to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for setting the scene. He said that he was not the master of the debate, but he was certainly the master of delivery. He told us about all the important issues, with the help of the two learned doctors in Westminster Hall today: the hon. Members for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford).
As my party’s spokesperson on health, I take an interest in all health matters in the House. Some people would say, “He takes an interest in just about everything in the House,” but that is by the bye. Health matters are my specific interest, so I am here to make a contribution in that capacity and will make a comment from a Northern Ireland perspective. Obviously, that will come into the debate.
First, I commend the all-party parliamentary group on liver health for the report that it has put forward. The hon. Member for Southend West is absolutely right: if people listen and read its recommendations, they will realise that the APPG has a really firm and dedicated interest in this matter. I am most impressed by the APPG’s recommendations and report; I am sincerely impressed by the work carried out by it. In my research for my contribution to the debate, I learned a lot from its recommendations and from the work that it does. The contents of the report are informative in the extreme. It provides lots of detail and information, which I hope will help us to contribute to the debate in a positive fashion.
I sincerely hope, too, that there will be such an opportunity for the Minister, who is always responsive and helpful. We are pleased to have a Minister who clearly has an interest in the subject matter. When he speaks, we will understand just how important that is. However, we need to implement the recommendations for so many people throughout the UK. I am also pleased to see in her place the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). I know that she will be equally positive.
The hon. Member for Southend West referred to George Best. He was the greatest footballer this world has ever known, according to Pelé, and what better person to say that than a man who many think was the best footballer in the world, even though whenever he has been asked he has said that it was George Best.
Unfortunately, George Best had problems; that was just the fact of it. With his talent and expertise came a problem, and the problem was alcohol. For a time, he and his wife lived in my constituency, just outside Portavogie, and he was very much someone who everyone wanted to associate with and spend time with. We well remember the day that he died and his funeral at Stormont. It was unusual for someone to be given the accolade of being buried from Stormont. I remember that it was a rainy day, but the crowds came from all over the Province just to be there and be part of what was a very poignant occasion as we laid to rest one of Northern Ireland’s greatest and, indeed, one of the world’s greatest when it came to playing football. I just wanted to say that, as the hon. Member for Southend West introduced it in his comments.
My parliamentary aide first went to Africa on a humanitarian aid project. She is a member of the Elim Church in my constituency. Elim Missions Ireland does some fantastic work out in Swaziland and Zimbabwe when it comes to helping with medical and education projects, as well as general all-round giving. It takes out a number of containers every year to help with that. When she told me about the list of vaccinations she had to get, one of which was for hepatitis A and another for hepatitis B, she said, “All I am really missing is hepatitis C.” Little did we understand in the office that the hepatitis C vaccine is greatly needed not simply on the plains of Africa, but in our own country. The hon. Gentleman referred to that.
The Northern Ireland Hepatitis B & C Managed Clinical Network is a website with great information that helps us to construct our speeches. Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus, which is carried in the blood stream to the liver. We know that it can cause inflammation and swelling. It can cause fibrosis and the scarring of the liver tissue, and sometimes liver damage. It may subsequently lead to cancer of the liver and possible death. Over the years as an elected representative, I have represented quite a few people who have died of liver cancer, although that is a separate debate. I remember only one person in that time who survived liver cancer to live for a longer period.
In Northern Ireland, there are more than 2,500 people known to be infected. A large proportion of people, however, remain unaware that they have the virus. That is one of the key issues on which we look to the Minister for a response. How do we raise that awareness to address those who do not know they have it, but need to know today? We all know that we need early diagnosis. If we find out early that something is wrong, we can do something about it, but if people are carrying the virus in their system and do not know, that is a real problem.
Like so many unseen diseases, the problem lies in the fact that many people do not realise they have been infected with the virus, because they have not had any symptoms or they may have flu-like symptoms that can easily be mistaken for another illness. I declare an interest as a type 2 diabetic, which is a chronic disease. Every year, I get that flu jab to try to stop flu and colds. By and large it works—it has for the last few years, anyway. People who get colds and flu regularly might wonder whether it is just a cold or flu, or something more. That is the question we are all asking.
With the pressure the NHS is under, as we all know, there are few of us who would not struggle through the winter with a perpetual cold or flu, thinking we were simply run down. Few people would bother their doctor with a cold, yet for some that prevents treatment from being started when it would be most effective.
This is Men’s Health Week. Those of us who fit into that category know that we need to look at our health more seriously. In Men’s Health Week, we need to say, “If you have a problem, go to your doctor.” People say that man flu is one of the worst things to have, but us men, unfortunately, do not respond to our health issues as strongly as we should. We should be going to our GP.
I have learned that there are six types of hepatitis C virus, which all have different genes, which are called genotypes and numbered 1 to 6. Almost all people in the UK who have hepatitis C have genotype 1, 2 or 3. It is important to know which type a patient has, as different types respond differently to treatment. It is possible to be infected with more than one type of hepatitis C at the same time. I remember an awareness event in the House of Commons not too long ago—it may have been last year—on hepatitis C. That day aimed to highlight the issue and make us more informed of the problems.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and there is some stigma attached, because it can be transmitted sexually or through sharing needles. That is certainly true, but it needs to be publicised that the virus can also be shared through an unsterilized needle in a tattoo parlour or something as innocuous as sharing a toothbrush, a razor or other personal items, because the blood can survive outside the body. An old toothbrush, therefore, can bring about a whole mess of issues. One person in four will clear the virus, but it is possible to catch it more than once.
The APPG’s positive recommendations on how hepatitis C could be eradicated should be central to our thoughts on where we go. All the issues I have mentioned are reasons we are not finding it easy to meet our own target of eradication by 2025 and the World Health Organisation target of world eradication by 2030. People may not be fully aware. Will the Minister confirm what has been done to meet those targets? Can the targets be met? What is new in the way that we address or respond to these things?
We need to ensure that those who present symptoms are tested and those with a history are re-tested. Someone who has had the virus before can have it again, and they might not know. With new drug combinations, it is anticipated that it will be possible to cure approximately 90% of persons with the HCV infection. Those new combinations are effective against the infection in patient groups that were previously described as difficult to treat. We need to focus on those difficult-to-treat areas.
I agree in totality with the recommendation of the APPG on liver health regarding the fact that NHS England has recently entered negotiations with industry to develop a new funding model for hepatitis C, which is expected to guarantee access to treatment without restriction. That is good news. I agree that the resulting deal should include effective mechanisms to ensure that funds are distributed equitably across different geographies and patient populations, so that no one is left behind. I will go further: Northern Ireland must be a key part of the distribution list, not simply the mainland of England, if we are to eradicate hepatitis C and address the issues, whatever they may be.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, who is the Scottish National party spokesperson, will give us not only a Scotland perspective, but a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland perspective. We need to look at how we can do this with the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, despite the limbo land that it is in, through the permanent secretary. Any new funding must be accompanied by a comprehensive and strategic plan to ensure that it is implemented effectively.
To conclude, there is a way forward with hepatitis C. It is treatable. Let us put this in perspective: it can be done. All we need is the will and the strategy to make it happen. People need to be aware that they have hepatitis C in the first place, but other work needs to be done too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Hepatitis C was identified about 25 years ago. When I was a young doctor, it was simply known as non-A, non-B hepatitis, because no one had any idea what it was. As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, we are talking about something that many people simply do not know they have. That is a key, underlying problem. Patients may only be aware that they have hepatitis C when they start to have liver symptoms, which is the start of cirrhosis or malignancy.
With any condition, we first want to prevent it. As was mentioned, at needle exchanges we already have blood screening to ensure that it is not coming from transfusion. We have to remember those in this country who previously suffered from contaminated blood that was iatrogenic—caused by doctors and the health service.
I agree with the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) that we need a more medical approach to the issue of drugs. If we drive problems underground, there is no possibility of detecting and treating people, to achieve the elimination that the World Health Organisation is aspiring to.
In Scotland we are recognised as world leaders, in the sense that we had a strategy in 2005, 2008, 2011 and then our elimination strategy, which was introduced in 2015. The 2011 strategy fed into what became the World Health Organisation strategy, as one of our senior leaders was seconded to it. The big change is sofosbuvir and ledipasvir—the new antivirals that are well tolerated and able to clear the viral load in 90% of all patients. Of course we would prefer a vaccine, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned; that is how we eliminated smallpox and how we are trying to eliminate polio. However, the problem with hepatitis C is that, as he said, there are six genotypes, but 50 subtypes, and it mutates regularly. It is one of those viruses with a coating that is very hard to get a handle on with the immune system and therefore to develop a vaccine for, so we need to use the drugs until a vaccine is available.
The Scottish Medicines Consortium passed sofosbuvir in 2014 and NICE passed it in 2015. Unfortunately, NHS England took the approach of trying to slow things down because the drugs are very expensive. However, dealing with liver failure and having to consider liver transplantation is even more expensive. A cap of 10,000 patients with cirrhosis and the most severe conditions from hepatitis C was set.
In Scotland in 2015, we took the opposite approach—a public health approach—to try to reduce the virus in the community and prevent it from occurring.
The hon. Lady is making very good points. I am sure she will correct me if I am wrong, but the other point to make is that in Scotland there has been a much more joined-up approach in tackling heroin addiction. Scotland is much further forward than England in addressing such issues, in having a co-ordinated strategy and in recognising how addiction leads to prisons and the criminal justice system. Indeed, there is not the fragmented commissioning of services that we see in this country. Does she agree with me that that is something that England can learn from in addressing the lack of joined-up working and commissioning?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As NHS Scotland is still a single public body, we do not have the issue around commissioning. We are also trying to take a much more health-based approach to addiction. As happens in England as well, we have multiple needle exchange programmes. This place has held us back from trying to introduce safe injection in Glasgow, which has one of our highest drug-addicted populations and highest incidence of drug-related deaths. However, that initiative comes under the Home Office and we have not been granted permission to try to take it forward. Always taking a criminal justice approach gets in the way of achieving the medical outcomes that we want.
It is really important to recognise the breakthrough of the drugs. With an eight or 12-week course, expensive as it is, more than 90% of patients will achieve a sustained virological response. That means they remain with undetectable levels of virus 12 to 24 weeks after the end of their treatment. The problem with rationing treatment to those who are actually ill is that it is the people who are not ill with hepatitis who spread it to other people, because they are out and active. If they are drug users, they are still using drugs. Someone who is so ill that they are confined to bed is not spreading it. That is why we took a public health approach to eliminating hepatitis C over the coming years. We certainly aim to achieve that before the World Health Organisation target date.
As the hon. Member for Southend West said, one of the key issues is people not knowing that they have the virus, so, in Scotland, part of our approach has been to create opt-out screening at various points of blood being taken. That will be from general practice in areas of high prevalence. It already includes bloods taken in accident and emergency. It includes screening at other times such as when we screen for HIV. Obviously, we screen for HIV when a woman has her booking appointment at the time of her pregnancy. We need to use all the opportunities that we can. Of course a patient always has a right to opt out, but when we make something the norm it becomes easier for people to agree.
The prison population obviously has a big problem with drugs, including IV drugs—either in the present or the past, before the prisoners were incarcerated. It is important that we get the tests taken up by such populations.
We also offer testing in more social settings, where there have been education events around hepatitis and HIV and where peer-to-peer work has been done. It is important that we raise awareness and try to reduce the stigma. There is a problem with always talking about HIV drug users, as opposed to recognising that someone might have been contaminated by blood in this country, while undergoing maternity care or surgery overseas, or, as was mentioned, in a tattoo parlour: it means that people do not care. We end up with, “Well, it’s their own fault”, which maintains the risk to everyone else and hampers elimination. As well as raising awareness, we absolutely have to reduce the stigma.
It is important to take a public health approach, as we have done in Scotland. I commend that to NHS England, which should remove the cap and do as we are doing: try to set a minimum target for new people to be found and treated as soon as possible. We have seen the new cases reduce from 1,500 in 2007 to 700 in 2013, but it is the chronic cases that have been out there for years that we have to find because they still carry the virus and can spread it to other people.
Of course, NHS England should try to get the price down. There is no right for drug companies to profiteer as opposed to having a fair return, but the issue must be taken in the round. We must recognise that eliminating the virus by using drug treatments while we wait for a vaccine will overall be an huge benefit to society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing this important debate and for the work that he has done as co-chair of the all-party group on liver health for many years, as well as for his excellent opening speech today. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), a vice-chair of the all-party group, is not in his place today, but I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done to raise awareness of this issue. I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for their excellent contributions and I thank the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for his interventions.
Finally, I thank Professor Steve Ryder, whom I met earlier this year, for his expert briefing and for the obvious passion that he has for eradicating hepatitis C in this country as soon as possible. I also pay tribute to the Hepatitis C Trust and the Hepatitis C Coalition for the work that they do.
I welcome NHS England’s ambitious commitment earlier this year to eliminate hepatitis C by 2025, five years ahead of the World Health Organisation’s target. Healthcare professionals and experts are confident that hepatitis C can be eliminated, notwithstanding everything we have heard today about the cap on the treatment. Today is the first time I have heard about that, but I am sure the Minister will respond to the issue in his remarks soon. I remain concerned about some of the challenges that need to be faced by 2025 if the target is to be achieved.
Hepatitis C, as we have heard, is a hidden disease with patients experiencing few or no obvious symptoms for many years, but its long-term effects can cause severe liver damage if it goes untreated. Across the UK, around 214,000 people are infected with hepatitis C, but I understand that 40% to 50% remain undiagnosed. That huge percentage of people going undiagnosed is one of the biggest challenges to eliminating this virus—we cannot treat people if we do not know who they are. As Professor Paul Klapper and Pam Vallely of Manchester University ask in an article published this year,
“how do we identify those who are infected so that they can be guided into treatment and care?”
As I, and many others, have mentioned today, hepatitis C is a hidden disease. People may be completely unaware that they are living with the virus, and at risk of unknowingly passing it on to those around them. Although awareness of hepatitis C is gradually improving, low awareness and stigma remains a challenge to ensuring that as many people as possible are tested, diagnosed and treated.
Levels of stigma and poor awareness are particularly high among at-risk groups, such as former or current drug users, or those who do not access conventional healthcare facilities, possibly because of fear of being challenged or stigmatised. How will the Government ensure that those at-risk groups are reached—not only for testing but for continued treatment? Again, this is where the cap will come into things; as more people come forward and are diagnosed, we must be able to treat them.
People need continued support throughout their treatment to ensure that they complete the course of medicine—if they do not, it is just a waste of time and money. Will the Government provide extra support to at-risk groups to ensure that that happens? An effective way of raising awareness and breaking down the stigma of hepatitis C is to introduce peer-to-peer messaging programmes for at-risk groups. Such a provision could be increased in settings such as drug services and prisons, and would mean that there will already be an understanding and relationship between the two parties. Has the Minister made any assessment of the role that a peer-to-peer programme might have in achieving the goal of eliminating hepatitis C by 2025?
Although at-risk groups make up a huge proportion of those living with hepatitis C, people who do not consider themselves to be at risk also pose a challenge to the 2025 target. As we have heard, Anita Roddick from The Body Shop was one of those who would not have been in an at-risk group, and she would have had no way of knowing that she was infected with hepatitis C. The excellent all-party group on liver health stated that
“A high-profile, Government-backed awareness campaign should be considered, and awareness messaging should be targeted through novel channels at those who may not consider themselves to be ‘at risk’.”
Do the Government have any plans to support Public Health England in raising awareness of hepatitis C among the wider general public, and what format might that campaign take?
Crucially, awareness among primary care professionals should be increased through targeted testing initiatives in primary care, with additional resources and support for primary care workers. If we are to eliminate hepatitis C, we must seize the opportunity when people are already having blood taken—tests for HIV for example, or when bloods are taken in A&E—and test them for hepatitis C. Testing should become routine in substance misuse services, sexual health clinics and prisons, and it must also increase in primary care and community settings, such as hostels, daycentres and police custody. The prevalence of hepatitis C among the prison population is four times that of the population as a whole. If the amount of people tested increases, we will be closer to identifying the 40% to 50% of infected people who are living with it unknowingly, and we will be one step closer to eliminating the virus.
A big step in recent years has been the development of a new class of drugs—direct-acting antivirals or DAAs—that has revolutionised the treatment of hepatitis C. The drugs no longer carry the toxicity or side effects of previous treatments, and the short treatment courses effectively cure the infection in a high percentage of cases. Once patients are diagnosed, however, it is crucial that they are treated immediately, because the time between diagnosis and starting treatment poses the greatest risk of patients dropping out of the care pathway.
For example, a prisoner who is diagnosed and treated while in prison but who is then released might not continue with the treatment and could be at risk of infecting others, as well as of not being cured. What mechanisms will the Government put in place to ensure that those who begin their treatment can finish it, regardless of any change in circumstances? Quicker referrals are also needed to simplify the process of linking people into care. Currently, some secondary care services will only accept referrals for treatment from GPs. The all-party group on liver health recommends that referrals for hepatitis C treatment should be accepted from any service where someone might receive a test and be diagnosed. Has the Minister made any assessment of that recommendation?
Finally, I move on to prevention. If we are to eliminate hepatitis C—we all want that to happen—we must ensure that the number of new infections falls. Substance misuse services and sexual health clinics have a crucial role in that, but their funding has consistently been cut by the Government. The King’s Fund estimates that spending on tackling drug misuse in adults has been cut by more than £22 million compared with last year, and funding for sexual health services has been cut by £30 million compared with last year. What role do the Government expect such services to play in the elimination of hepatitis C, given such finite funding and resources? Those services provide not only a testing service, but an educational one that could help reduce reinfection rates—a further challenge to the elimination of this virus.
I am sure the Minister will agree that serious challenges lie ahead in meeting our ambition to eradicate hepatitis C by 2025. All those challenges need to be addressed—not only to meet NHS England’s target, but to ensure that this potential public health crisis is averted. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on how the Government plan to tackle those challenges in the months and years ahead.
It is genuinely a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to be back in Westminster Hall on such a quiet day in Westminster. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is sadly not in his place today, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing and leading this debate. Although he said that he was not the best person to introduce the debate, he could have fooled us because he did it very well.
Hepatitis C is a significant health issue in our country, and for too long it has been overshadowed by other public health concerns that, despite the superstars involved, have had higher public profiles. I pay tribute to the Hepatitis C Trust and the wonderful Charles Gore, whom I have got to know in this job. He is a colossus in this area, and has become a friend. I also thank the Hepatitis C Coalition—this issue has been central to both those organisations.
My hon. Friend mentioned lots of local services for Southend residents, and a lot is going on in his constituency. Few MPs champion their constituency more than he does, so for his press release I will mention that screening and onward referral services are provided by the Southend Treatment and Recovery Service, known as STARS. For primary care, GP practices refer people to the specialist treatment services in my hon. Friend’s much-loved Southend Hospital. Local drug and alcohol treatment services in Southend hold outreach screening sessions for hepatitis, and all positive cases are referred for onward treatment. Big local successes that I noted in my papers included last year’s hepatitis C roadshow, which took place in my hon. Friend’s area, and there is the hepatitis C operational delivery network educational event 2018—he can see me after class for more details if he would like.
It is always good to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place, speaking so knowledgably and passionately about this issue, as well as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter).
The World Health Organisation has set ambitious targets to reduce the burden of chronic hepatitis C over the coming years, with a pledge to eliminate it as a major public health threat by 2030. The UK Government are committed to meeting and beating that target, as has rightly been said.
A few years ago, hepatitis C-related mortality was predicted to increase in our country, but through the measures that we have in place and the hard work and dedication of so many unsung heroes in the field, 9,440 treatments were delivered nationally against a target of 10,000 in 2016-17; the number of deaths fell for the first time in more than a decade, and that has been sustained for another year; and between 2014 and 2016, there was a 3% fall in deaths from hepatitis C-related end-stage liver disease. That is good news.
However, hepatitis C continues to make a significant contribution to current rates of end-stage liver disease. I welcomed the recommendations to tackle that in the report, “Eliminating Hepatitis C in England”, which was published in March by the all-party parliamentary group on liver health, of which the hon. Member for Southend West is co-chair. I often produce a recommendation-by-recommendation response to Select Committee reports in my area, but when I checked with my officials during the debate, I found that I did not do it for that report—I was not asked to by the group—but I offer to do so. In fact, I will go further than that—I will go crazy and do it. The group will get that from me as a written response to its report.
This is a timely debate, because NHS England recently launched its procurement exercise for the new generation of hepatitis C antivirals. If that exercise delivers successfully, the ambition is to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat earlier than the WHO goal of 2030, and to get to 2025.
Given the experience that we had with NHS England on HIV PrEP medication and its argument that that was a public health responsibility, which I believe was wrong and which was legally found wanting, will the Minister ensure that he holds its feet to the fire on hepatitis C so it recognises that although it is a public health issue, it has a responsibility for the effective procurement of antivirals and for making them available to all people with hepatitis C?
Point taken; feet will be held to said fire. I do not think that NHS England is found wanting in this area, and I will go on to say why, but I take my hon. Friend’s point and will follow it through, because I want this to work.
The new industry deal may allow for longer contract terms that cover a number of years, but whether a long-term deal can be reached and what its duration is will be contingent on the quality and value of the bids submitted by industry. I expect the outcome of that in the autumn.
On local delivery networks, NHS England has established 22 operational delivery networks across our country to ensure national access to the antiviral therapy. I will touch on the issue of the cap in a minute. Those clinically led operational networks are given a share of the national annual treatment run rates based on estimated local need.
That local operational delivery network model ensures better equity of access. Many patients with chronic hepatitis C infections come from marginalised groups that do not engage well with healthcare, as has already been said. Through the development of networks, it has been possible to deliver outreach and engagement with patients outside traditional healthcare settings, such as offering testing through drug and alcohol services and community pharmacies.
As hon. Members know, I have a great soft spot for community pharmacies, and I think that they can and do play an important role in this space. In April, I hopped along to Portmans Pharmacy, which is just up the road in Pimlico, to see the pharmacy testing pilot of the London joint working group on substance use and hepatitis C that is going on there. I saw the testing and the referral to treatment that takes place in pharmacies that offer needle and syringe programmes across six boroughs in London.
Portmans Pharmacy has provided a needle and syringe programme and the supervised consumption of methadone for a number of years. Those points of contact with people who inject, or previously injected—a key distinction—drugs provide an ideal opportunity for us to make every contact count and to test for hepatitis C, as we think that about half of people who inject drugs in London have the virus.
The approach of Portmans Pharmacy and the London joint working group is innovative. It aims to provide quick and easy access to testing and a clear pathway into assessment and treatment in specialist care, which is obviously critical. I pay great tribute to the work that the group has done. It has rightly received a lot of coverage and a lot of plaudits. I am anxious and impatient—as my officials know, I am impatient about everything—to see the peer-reviewed results of that work and where we can scale it out more.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned treatment in respect of the cap. It is different north of the border, but NHS England offers treatment as per the NICE recommendations. The drugs that she mentioned are expensive, which limits the number of people who can be treated each year, but treatment has been prioritised for those most severely affected. The NHS then provides treatment to others who are less severely affected. So far, 25,000 people in England have been treated with the new drugs and a further 13,000 will be treated this year. The NHS procurement exercise should allow for even larger numbers to be treated each year. Of course, nothing is perfect in life. Resources in a publicly funded health system are finite, which is why we have to target them at the most challenged group. That is one of the reasons why making every contact count through primary care and pre-primary care, as I call community pharmacies, is so important.
Does the Minister accept, though, that the people who are likely to continue to spread the condition are those who are less ill? The old concoctions tend not to be so effective or well tolerated. That is a big difference from the new antivirals, which are very effective and very well tolerated. It strikes me that in England, we may be letting more people become more ill before they qualify for the better drug.
Of course, the hon. Lady states a fact not an opinion, and I accept that, which is why I speak of the importance of primary care and of making every contact count. The people who Portmans Pharmacy interacts with are not all sick. People who have a hepatitis C infection or a drug-use issue have other issues—they get flu too—so they interact with that pharmacy, and the pharmacy makes every contact count by grabbing people earlier. That is one reason why I am so passionate about the way that that underused network can help us to reach the ambitious targets that we have set.
Everyone has rightly talked about prevention—in many ways, I am the Minister with responsibility for prevention and it is the thing that I am most passionate about in our health service. As well as testing and treating those already infected, an essential part of tackling hepatitis C must be the prevention of infection in the first place, or the prevention of reinfection of those successfully treated, which would not be a smart use of public resources.
NHS England and Public Health England, which I have direct ministerial responsibility for, are actively engaged in programmes at a local level to prevent the spread of infection. As people who inject drugs or share needles are at the greatest risk of acquiring hepatitis C, prevention services, particularly those provided by drug treatment centres, are key components of hepatitis C control strategies. Clearly, the key to breaking the cycle of hepatitis C is to prevent infection happening in the first place.
The fundamental issue is that there is no greater evidence of fragmentation—I speak from my own clinical experience—and failure of joined-up working than the fact that local authorities commission substance misuse services but that the NHS commissions mental health services for the same patients and secondary care services for hepatitis C patients. People are falling through the gaps. Many people who have hepatitis C do not present to GPs, and are not even routinely on their lists, so the issue has to be looked at in a much more effective way if we are to make a difference.
I hear my hon. Friend’s experience of the frontline and I would not disagree that in some areas there is unhelpful fragmentation. If I remember rightly back to those happy early days of the election of my hon. Friend and I to this place, we sat on the Health and Social Care Bill Committee. That piece of legislation, controversial as it was, enacted the decision to pass that responsibility to local authorities and, of course, all local authorities are now, in effect, public health bodies. All of them—well, top-tier authorities in England—have directors of public health.
Just because there are challenges and fragmentation, that is not a reason to redraw the system. I do not think there is any desire within the system for a top-down or bottom-up reorganisation—I suspect that, as a doctor, my hon. Friend would agree with that—but there is a challenge to the system to come up with a much better whole-system approach, to make sure that people do not fall between those cracks.
My hon. Friend and I could debate at length—I am sure we will—whether those cracks can ever be filled, and whether there will ever be Polyfilla that is big enough or strong enough to fill those holes, but I do not think that it is a reason to break open the system.
I give way to my hon. Friend for the last time.
This fragmentation of commissioning is a really important point and it comes up in so many debates in Westminster Hall and, indeed, in the main Chamber. I urge my hon. Friend and indeed the rest of the health team—we have got to put right the things that we got wrong. If we want to get this issue right, and get it right for people with hepatitis C, and for people with mental health conditions who are not getting access to services because of this fragmentation, then we have to revisit it.
I urge my hon. Friend to go and spend some time out on the frontline with some professionals and to get them to talk to him candidly—not on a ministerial visit. He should get them to talk to him candidly about these problems, because we have to recognise that this situation needs to change for the benefit of the people we care about, who are the patients.
I will not prolong this discussion, Mr Streeter, but I take my hon. Friend’s point and I think it is a subject that will receive further airing, to put it mildly.
Will the Minister give way one last time?
One last time and then I must conclude, because I want to touch on prisons.
Obviously, this debate has emphasised the importance of diagnosing people and getting people to undergo testing. However, does the Minister see that it is much easier to encourage people to undergo a test when they can be promised that they will get effective, tolerable treatment that will be successful, as opposed to their perhaps being left languishing on what is now relatively old-fashioned treatment that is full of side effects?
Yes, of course, and that is why I have talked about the local networks, and about early detection and prevention. What the hon. Lady says is self-evident.
The Hepatitis C Trust, which has rightly received many plaudits today, has played an important role for us in recent years in piloting pretty innovative ways of increasing testing rates, through mobile testing vans—for example, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West—and the pharmacy-based testing work that I mentioned, as well as the introduction of peer educators in prisons, which a number of people have mentioned today. My hon. Friend mentioned his visit to Wandsworth Prison, which he was right to say is a very good example of peer educators working.
The subject of prisons is one the House knows is of great interest to me. Given the number of people who, sadly, actively inject drugs across the criminal justice system and the custodial system today, it is obviously likely that a significant proportion of those in the infected but undiagnosed population will have spent some period at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
As part of the health services commissioned for those in detained settings, an opt-out testing programme for blood-borne viruses, including hepatitis C, in adult prisoners was fully implemented across the English secure estate last year, 2017-18. Because of the expected higher rates of prevalence, opt-out testing for blood-borne viruses is offered in 100% of the prison estate in England, as part of the healthcare reception process, although, it has to be said, with differential success and outcomes. We are currently addressing that through a range of initiatives that have been put in place to improve the delivery of testing and the provision of successful treatment in prisons. So, in some areas the whole-system changes are being piloted.
My shadow, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), made the very good point that we’ve started, so we must finish. Absolutely; as I said earlier, it would be a very inefficient use of public resources to start treatment inside the secure estate. That is why, when we talk about through-the-gate treatment, that treatment must include health treatment. That is something—I cannot believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) is getting a second mention in this debate; I see that he is on his feet in the main Chamber—that I look forward to talking to the new Minister with responsibility for prison healthcare about, whenever he or she takes up that lucky role in future hours or days.
Let me take the opportunity once again to congratulate the all-party parliamentary group on liver health. It is not the first time that I have said this and it will not be the last: so much good work in this place goes on in all-party parliamentary groups, including so much informed debate. As a Minister—I am sure that others in the Chamber who have been Ministers would concur—I think that those groups are incredibly valuable to us and to the work that we do.
That is why I spend so much time listening to all-party parliamentary groups, helping them, including helping them to launch their reports, and then writing back with line-by-line responses to their reports, because their work is so vital to us. It is critical on a public health issue such as this, which, as I said at the start, is often overlooked and sometimes brushed under the carpet as being a little bit, “We don’t want to discuss this.” That is because, exactly as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said, there may even—God forbid—be an unspoken feeling that, “Well, with their behaviour they had it coming.” She is very brave to say it and I have no qualms in repeating it, but I think that feeling does exist.
The measures that I have spoken about today are not a panacea; the target is an incredibly challenging one for us. However, the Government, Lord O’Shaughnessy—who speaks for us in the other place on this subject and shares an office with me—and I are all passionate about this issue. We passionately believe that it is something that we can and will beat. We are taking it seriously, and we are in a good position to push forward and significantly reduce the burden of hepatitis C, in line with our commitment on it.
This debate shows us that improvement in hepatitis C testing and delivery of treatment are best delivered where there have been whole-system improvements. The Government, together with the wider health and social care system, have got to take all the opportunities available to us to address this key, but sometimes overlooked, public health challenge.
I am really happy with what my hon. Friend the Minister has said about all-party parliamentary groups because, sadly, the recommendations of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue were not listened to over a number of years, and of course we had the Grenfell disaster. However, I get the distinct impression from my hon. Friend that he is listening to the recommendations of this report by the all-party parliamentary group on liver health.
It has been a great privilege to learn one or two things from other colleagues with more expertise in this field than I have. In every sense, this debate has been time well spent, and I am very, very optimistic about the future progress towards eliminating hepatitis C. I thank all colleagues for the time that they have spent here in Westminster Hall, participating in this debate, and I very much look forward to celebrating with my hon. Friend the Minister within a few years the elimination of hepatitis C.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered elimination of hepatitis C.