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Allergy Research and Treatments: Government Support

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022

[Relevant document: e-petition 589716, Appoint an Allergy Tsar as a champion for people living with allergies.]

Order. I will call on Christian Matheson to move the motion, then on the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up. However, I understand that there might be interventions from a couple of colleagues, which I shall take during Mr Matheson’s speech.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for allergy research and treatments.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Sir Charles. I was at the Chester gang show not long ago, and was looked after very well on an excellent evening by a gentleman called Tim McLachlan. Tim, it turns out, runs the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, a memorial foundation that campaigns on allergy research. The House will remember that Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was the victim of an allergy. She ate a sandwich with sesame in it and died on an aircraft. It was an utter tragedy. In memory of her, her parents set up the charity that Mr McLachlan now runs, which really caught my imagination.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and for securing the debate. He referred to a young lady called Natasha; I want to refer to my own niece who, because of her allergy, ended up on a ventilator machine three times in the space of three years.

That is an awful situation. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s family. That three times in three years is a shocking statistic, which we will come back to because there is a burgeoning rise in allergic disease in the UK. It is an issue of great importance to people across the country, as the recent parliamentary petition demonstrated. Indeed, I thank the Petitions Committee for incorporating that petition into the debate.

It is estimated that here in the UK one in three people are living with allergies and 3 million with food allergies. It is not only about food allergies. I was contacted today by a lady called Sue. She, her daughter and her grandson have a latex allergy. Her daughter has had to write, on behalf of her son—Sue’s grandson—to all the manufacturers of school sportswear equipment to find out whether their equipment contains latex, because of that allergy. Her daughter has lost 3½ stone in two years because of her allergies and has finally, after about two and a half to three years, got a treatment. However, it should not take that long.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. My second son was born with allergies, and has just the one now—I am thankful that he managed to grow out of some of them. Does the hon. Member agree that as one in four people suffer from some type of basic allergy, and have to live their lives with medication to deal with the symptoms, we must see extra investment into research on the varied multitude of allergies that people are suffering from throughout the UK?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I absolutely agree. Research shows that in the 20 years to 2012, there was a 615% increase in hospital admissions in the UK for anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction mainly caused by food allergies.

Members may be familiar with a tragic list of recent fatalities, mostly of young people, from anaphylaxis: Sadie Bristow, aged nine; Shanté Turay-Thomas, 18; Karanbir Cheema, 13; Ava-Grace Stevens, nine; James Atkinson, 23; Owen Carey, 18; Ellen Raffell, 16; and, of course, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15. Those are just some of the entirely avoidable deaths we have witnessed in recent years.

Thankfully, because of the powerful campaign run by Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, Natasha’s parents, we now have a new allergen and ingredient-labelling law in the UK, known as Natasha’s law. It will save lives and prevent others from suffering the terrible grief that those families will always bear. I pay tribute to the Government in this case for their swift response in ending the loophole in the law that Natasha’s death—caused by sesame seeds hidden in a baguette—exposed. I am sure that the Government’s actions on that are welcomed throughout the House.

Much more needs to be done. I will highlight two areas where I challenge Ministers, in this time of great need, to rise up and offer real hope to hundreds of thousands of families who live daily with the fear of a loved one suffering a severe—or worse, fatal—anaphylactic reaction: research and treatment. Turning to the latter, for too long allergy services have been the Cinderella services in our healthcare system. There is a national postcode lottery, and too many patients take too long to get specialist appointments, as we heard from Sue who emailed me. There are too few specialist allergy clinics, too few specialist allergy doctors and consultants and too little training for GPs. The pathway between GP and hospital allergy services is deeply disjointed. No specific treatment for allergies is readily available in the UK, and an individualised avoidance strategy with an adrenaline auto-injector is the only practical advice offered. That negatively affects quality of life.

The care that people with allergies receive is at best patchy, and at worst has led to avoidable deaths. Without greater priority given to allergies, those problems will continue and sadly more lives might be lost unnecessarily. Those are just a few of the reasons why colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group for allergy recently published their excellent report calling for the appointment of a national lead on allergy. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for his dedicated work and leadership on the matter—he may seek to intervene later in the debate.

That is also the view of the Ednan-Laperouses’ charity, the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, which has ran an excellent campaign calling for an allergy tsar. That was also the topic of the petition considered in this debate —someone to work across Government to tackle those issues. It is fair to say that the allergy community—patients, families, charities and the clinicians—are united as one in believing that there is an urgent need for a national lead to be appointed. I know that the Minister of State recently met members of the APPG and the national strategy group. I ask the Minister what plans the Government have on the appointment of a national lead on allergies. I hope that the Minister can provide the leadership and drive that the allergy community has called for.

Turning now to the matter of research, I urge the Minister to respond to the request from the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation for a meeting, sent in early January. There is a strong belief in the scientific community that, given the right amount of research funding, in the next couple of decades treatments can be found that could potentially eradicate allergies. I am aware that the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation intends to be a lead player in the research field and in its mission to make allergy history. I take the opportunity to thank everyone at the foundation for all the crucial work they have already done in the field. I understand that they will shortly announce their first research project, a £2.2 million study across five university hospital sites in England. That investment is roughly the same as the Government have donated as a whole to allergy research funding over the last five years.

If I may quote the Minister, on 29 October, she stated:

“Over the past five years, the Department of Health and Social Care has awarded the National Institute for Health Research over £2 million for research into food allergies.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 597.]

I am fearful that this is not sufficient. Without enough funding, there is not enough research. Without research, there is no treatment. Without treatment there is no change for the millions of people and families affected. I ask the Minister why, given the acknowledged growing epidemic of allergies in this country, research funding is not being given a significantly higher priority? Why is research into food allergic disease so underfunded compared with other diseases? Will the Minister consider other areas of allergy such as, for example, the case of latex that I mentioned earlier?

I am aware that the Food Standards Agency is undertaking a research programme into food allergy and intolerance, but it is not researching cause and prevention or developing treatments. I am also aware that the Department for Education is currently running a food standards pilot. However, flying in the face of the evidence from staff in our schools of a food allergy epidemic, it has not even bothered to include food allergy in its remit. That is another example of how individuals with food allergies are being forgotten and excluded. That is another reason why, as the petition states, we need an allergy tsar to work across all the Departments and Government agencies.

The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation is heavily leveraging the major food companies to help fund and play their part. They cannot do that work alone. I, and many others, believe that the Government now need to show direction and deliver investment into food allergy research, including cause, prevention and treatments. We need to be moving, and at pace. We should not be waiting for other young lives to be tragically lost before we step up to the mark.

I rise to make a couple of quick points.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on his outstanding speech. He mentioned the scale of allergic disease and the epidemic that we are witnessing across the country, and he listed some of the tragic deaths from anaphylaxis. While welcoming Natasha’s law, he acknowledged how much more needs to be done on research and treatment.

In this regard, the recent report, “Meeting the challenges of the National Allergy Crisis”, made four general recommendations on treatment: first, as my hon. Friend mentioned, a national plan for allergy, led by a designated civil servant or NHS lead; secondly, an expanded specialist workforce to ensure training programmes that prioritise allergy; thirdly, to ensure all GPs and healthcare professionals in primary care have adequate knowledge and training about allergic issues; and fourthly, ways for local commissioners to understand and address the allergy needs of their local populations.

My hon. Friend touched on all those points, but he also opened up new ground in this debate on the question of research, which I welcome. We could eradicate allergies with appropriate financial support and Government backing. The £2.2 million from the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation is vital. I commend the family on everything they have done over the last few years. They are literally matching total Government research spend. As my hon. Friend said, surely we can do better than that and become a global leader in research to overcome this epidemic.

I have spent many years engaging with Ministers from different Governments on this subject, Sir Charles, but the present Minister has already demonstrated real commitment to this agenda. Consequently, we have a work programme and an ongoing dialogue between civil servants and representatives from the National Allergy Strategy Group. I commend the Minister for this, but I urge her to go further and faster, and positively respond to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester on research expenditure. Lives depend on that, as well as the quality of life of many millions of our fellow citizens.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for securing this debate on this important issue and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for his comments. In my short few months in this role, we have already talked about this important topic on a number of occasions. I take it very seriously and I appreciate the tone in which this debate is taking place.

Allergies affect around 20 million people in the UK. Thankfully, most allergic reactions are mild and people can manage their symptoms effectively. However, for some people, as we heard from the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) when she spoke about her niece, management of allergies can be complex and reactions to allergens can be severe and cause much distress, and can even, sadly, be fatal on some occasions.

For people living with allergies, everyday activities can be challenging and navigating the world can be an anxious experience. The Government recognise the challenges faced by people with allergies and are committed to ensuring that all children and adults living with allergies are well supported.

As has been mentioned, investing in research is a key component in supporting people living with allergies. It plays a vital role in providing those working in the NHS, public health and social care with the evidence they need to better support parents and families, and supports access to pioneering treatment, diagnostics and services.

The Department of Health and Social Care funds research through the National Institute for Health Research. In the past five years we have provided the NIHR with over £14.1 million in funding for research into allergies. We would welcome funding applications for research into allergies, including potentially into more unusual types of allergies, as more funding is available but on an application basis. There has been a wide breadth of research across the life course on a range of allergic conditions, from hay fever, eczema and allergic or atopic asthma, to food and drug allergies, which can cause severe anaphylaxis, as has been mentioned.

In addition to directly funded projects into allergies, the NIHR clinical research network also supported the recruitment of participants into 79 studies of allergies over the past five years. In 2020-21 alone, the NIHR biomedical research centres had 56 active projects related to allergies, and those projects can make a real difference to people’s lives.

One trial of a new peanut oral immunotherapy treatment in children showed a high rate of desensitisation, with many of the participants able to consume a very small quantity of peanuts following the treatment. The families involved in the trial said that oral immunotherapy had transformed their lives, reducing anxiety and allowing them more freedom in terms of food choice.

Further research is being carried out into the effectiveness and safety of immunotherapy to see whether it can be used to help others. For example, there is a project looking at peanut oral immunotherapy in adults and another investigating cow’s milk oral immunotherapy in babies. I know those will be welcomed by many people. I am very much struck by the stories of Monty and Arlo, which I took to heart, and by the anxiety felt by the children having to deal with this on a daily basis. I am also struck by the maturity with which they both approached it.

In terms of new treatments, in December last year NHS England announced that children in England will be the first in Europe to receive Palforzia, a life-changing treatment for peanut allergies, after NHS England secured the first deal of its kind in Europe. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published its final guidance on Palforzia in February 2022, so it is very recent. Up to 600 children aged four to 17 are expected to benefit from the treatment this year, with that number rising to as many as 2,000 in 2023.

It is important that, while we continue to look for treatments, we also consider how best we can support families living with allergies.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the advances in allergy treatment. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this debate and the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on his work in this area over a number of years.

May I push the Minister on one point? The key challenge for many families is access to diagnostics and the link between primary and secondary care. As well as highlighting many of the successes, will she outline what more can be done to improve timely access to diagnostics for families?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention and will go directly to that point. General practitioners are responsible for ensuring that their own clinical knowledge remains up to date and for identifying learning needs as part of their continuing professional development. I am sure he is aware of that. That activity should include taking into account new research and developments in guidance. All doctors are expected to meet those standards, and the Royal College of General Practitioners has developed an allergy e-learning online resource to support continuing professional development and revalidation, which aims to educate GPs about the various presentations of allergic disease to aid with diagnosis. We appreciate that that has to go through a large number of GPs.

I was talking about families living with allergies. Other NIHR-funded research at the University of East Anglia is developing a psychological toolkit that aims to help parents to learn skills to manage their own anxiety around their child’s food allergy, as well as addressing children’s anxiety. We know that people with allergies are often advised to avoid the substance that they are allergic to, but we also know that that is not always easy or practical, and we have seen tragic examples of where that has not been the case—indeed, Natasha was mentioned. The Government are taking steps to protect those with allergies and intolerances. That includes the introduction of Natasha’s law, named after that sad case, which came into force on 1 October 2021, making it a legal requirement for all food retailers and operators to display full ingredient and allergen labelling information on every food item they sell that is pre-packed for direct sale.

Additionally, food hypersensitivity, which includes food allergies, is a strategic priority for the Food Standards Agency. As an evidence-based organisation, the FSA has been at the forefront of world-leading research, which has had a significant impact on our understanding of food. The FSA is currently undertaking a programme of work to improve the quality of life for people living with food hypersensitivity and provide support to make safe, informed food choices to effectively manage risk. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is also planning next steps to support the wider availability of adrenalin auto-injectors in public spaces. We have had debates on that here as well. That is a medicine used for the emergency treatment of severe acute allergic reactions. We know there is more to consider about how we might protect people further.

I know that this issue matters to many Members, and to many constituents. I thank all hon. Members for the points they have made and the continued discussion we have had on this topic. I hope they will accept that real progress is being made. I hope I have been able to assure them that we will continue to support people living with allergies through NIHR research and exploring and investing in new treatments. With the engagement and involvement of patients and the public across the country, I hope we can improve the lives and outcomes for everyone living with allergies and their families.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.