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Influenza Pandemic

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, in the event of an outbreak of pandemic influenza, they would designate ministers of religion as key workers.

My Lords, the Government recognise that ministers of religion will play an important role during an influenza pandemic. Provisional recommendations for prioritising groups for vaccination have been made in the UK influenza pandemic contingency plan, but no decision to designate entire employment sectors as having a higher priority has yet been made. The needs of ministers of religion will be taken into consideration alongside the claims of other groups.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does he not agree that social stability and cohesion are important in dealing responsibly with a pandemic and that the clergy would have a very important and useful part to play? Would not their explicit inclusion in the Department of Health’s antiviral prophylaxis and vaccination plan be prudent? Perhaps I may press the Minister further. Will he also consider issuing resource materials to local pandemic flu committees on engaging with faith communities, similar to what has been issued by the US centres for disease control?

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that social cohesion is important in handling a pandemic, and I am sure that the clergy will assist in that area. As I said, no final decisions have been taken on designating employment groups as having priority for vaccination. We will consider carefully the points which he makes with the Faith Communities Consultative Council.

My Lords, nobody knows whether such a pandemic of avian influenza will take place or, if there is one, when. But would it not be sensible for the Government to have preparatory talks with non-governmental organisations such as St John Ambulance and the Red Cross and other similar bodies to prepare them for the possibility that they might deliver doses of antiviral drugs and vaccines to endangered communities?

My Lords, we have ongoing discussions with a wide range of people including the NGOs and public authorities, and we continually update the UK influenza pandemic contingency plan which is available on our website. On antivirals, we will deliver them, centrally, direct to PCTs and GPs.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that when it comes to antivirals, we need stocks of a sufficient size to cater for some prophylactic use, not just treating infected patients; and that stocks which are currently held or on order will not enable the NHS to do that to any great extent?

My Lords, we are currently purchasing a sufficient quantity of Tamiflu antiviral to treat 25 per cent of the population falling ill with pandemic influenza, which is what the current plans are based on. That equates to 14.6 million courses. The last of those courses will arrive in August and September. We keep the prophylaxis issue under review. We are studying a paper by Professor Neil Ferguson, who has expressed views on the issue.

My Lords, does my noble friend feel there is a danger of a member of the public reading this Question and mistakenly believing that ministers of religion are to be involved to administer the last rites?

My Lords, I think that this is a man with no access to a higher authority to be able to answer that question.

My Lords, if there is a pandemic, there will be people wanting and needing the last rites. Is the Minister aware that chaplains in hospital deal with the dying, and that ministers of religion visit dying people in their homes? If they are not key workers, who are on the list of key workers?

My Lords, the current proposal is that frontline healthcare workers would be a priority group but, as I said in my reply, no final decisions have been taken in this area on specific employment groups. I assure the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate that guidance on infection control is available to ministers of religion attending the dying or deceased.

My Lords, without claiming access to a higher authority, being merely a rabbi and not a bishop, perhaps I may ask the Minister to consider whether we need to get some of the clergy across the faiths to meet now with others who are to be designated as key workers. However, I appreciate that the decision has not finally been made. There may be deaths, but more than that there may be considerable emotional and spiritual distress in communities. The clergy will need to be there to help to deal with that. Will the Minister consider doing something about it now?

My Lords, I am informed that we are in the process of asking the Faith Communities Consultative Council to set up a working party to evaluate the business case—if I may put it that way—for classifying ministers of religion as key workers.

My Lords, could the Minister take as an example the rural network scheme, which worked very well during the foot and mouth disease outbreak, when Church of England priests in particular were enormously helpful to very distressed people in the rural communities?

My Lords, we keep under review all these examples of good practice and I will certainly draw my colleagues’ attention to that one.

My Lords, is it possible for the Minister to have a comprehensive list of all those designated as ministers of the various faiths so that they may be kept informed of what actions need to be taken?

My Lords, as there is as yet no sign of a pandemic in the Far East, what is the likelihood of a pandemic in Europe?

My Lords, I do not think that I am competent to speculate on that. We have put in place provisions to cope with a possible pandemic, and we continue to work closely with the WHO and to keep on top of monitoring outbreaks of various kinds of influenza around the world.

My Lords, following the Science and Technology Committee report recommendation that there should be discussion with those who distribute food, can the Minister confirm that there has been a discussion with major supermarket chains and that contingency plans have been made for use in the event of 25 per cent of heavy goods vehicles drivers not being in work?

My Lords, we are working across Government to engage essential services and encourage them to develop robust business continuity plans appropriate for a pandemic, and we are working with representatives of business through the Cabinet Office business forum to ensure that they have the information they need to plan for the impact of a pandemic on their business. Defra is in touch with the food distribution industry in this area.