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Respiratory Viruses

Volume 817: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risks posed by respiratory viruses this winter to (1) children, (2) young people, and (3) the elderly; and what further medical protection measures they will put in place to tackle (a) respiratory syncytial virus, and (b) influenza.

Influenza remains a health threat, which is why the Government are offering flu vaccinations to more people this winter, including older people and, for the first time, all schoolchildren up to year 11. Reduced transmission of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, last winter led to a summer surge, particularly in child cases—there were few among elderly adults—which is now diminishing. Seasonal RSV preventive monoclonal antibodies for highly vulnerable children were authorised from June 2021.

My Lords, measures taken to combat Covid-19 over the last year have resulted in the epidemiology of seasonal viruses being out of sync with usual patterns. Last year, Public Health England reported concerns about rising rates of RSV infections in infants following the Covid-19 lockdowns, and reduced immunity levels combined with an already stretched health service. Given the continued pressures on the NHS, can the Minister outline what evaluation the Government have made of the NHS’s capacity to handle a potentially extended RSV season, and will they work with the devolved Administrations in that regard?

There was an unseasonal surge in RSV activity during the summer of 2021, which peaked in late July at about 15.7% swab positivity and a hospital admission rate of 2.5%. But, following the summer surge, RSV activity declined and positivity currently sits below seasonally expected levels. As a consequence, the RSV hospitalisation rate has declined since the summer surge.

My Lords, thankfully, influenza is low again this winter, largely on account of the most effective way to counter flu: hand washing, covering one’s mouth and vaccination. The House will recognise that those are the identical solutions for fighting Covid. So I urge the Minister and his colleagues to keep hammering those three simple messages in their anti-Covid approach, because at the same time that will reduce many deaths by keeping flu down.

The noble Lord makes a very important point that we should acknowledge. The fact is that the preventive messages against Covid are equally valid against influenza. Indeed, the reduction in social contact since the pandemic has led to a reduction in seasonal flu, as we would expect, compared with previous years. I take the noble Lord’s point and will make sure that I repeat it when I can.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, wishes to speak virtually. We have her on screen. This is a convenient point to call her.

My Lords, government data show that more children have been admitted to hospital with Covid in the last three weeks than in the whole of the nine months of the first wave. Many clinically extremely vulnerable children are still expected to go to school, even though they still await their vaccines and guidance on how to manage the risks they face, including RSV and influenza. Can the Minister say when these children and their families will get the vaccines and guidance they need? If he cannot, will he please write to me with the answer?

The Government have put in place a range of measures to protect children from RSV this winter, including expanding the passive immunisation programme for all at-risk infants, ensuring that the NHS has surge plans in place to respond to any increasing cases, raising awareness among parents and at schools of the symptoms of RSV and when to seek medical help, and increasing our out-of-season surveillance capacity.

My Lords, given that the elderly are more susceptible to respiratory viruses in the cold, and given the number of excess winter deaths we have already seen in recent years, the reduction in the earnings link for the triple lock and the lack of availability of any increase in the cold weather support for older people, will my noble friend consider whether the Government might introduce any emergency measures to help pensioners keep warm through the winter?

My noble friend makes a very important point that during the winter people quite often need some help and assistance with winter fuel and other issues. For RSV and influenza, this winter we have had the continued offer of vaccination for 50 to 64 year-olds for the first time, and to additional cohorts. By 19 December, 82% of people aged 65 years and over and 48% of people under 65 years in risk groups had received a flu vaccine.

My Lords, in July last year my right honourable friend Jonathan Ashworth anticipated the risk of co-infection with both viruses—popularly known as “flurona”—being likely to compound the impact of Covid. He asked then whether the Prime Minister would invest now in testing capacity so that, alongside a Covid test, it would be possible to test for flu and RSV. Is there a plan to take up multipathogen testing for the future—it is obviously too late for this winter—as we learn to live with Covid?

There are a number of innovations when it comes to vaccines and testing for vaccines. Indeed, some of the companies and organisations we spoke to recently about future testing requirements, for example, have looked at multiple tests or tests where you can identify multiple conditions. It is one of the things that the department and the NHS are continuing to have conversations on with suppliers.

I congratulate my noble friend on the success of the flu jab and the way it has worked this year through general practice. In passing, I also reflect on the pre-testing of children going back to school and having a test just before school. There remains a concern, though, about the elderly who are housebound. There was a problem with ensuring extra Covid jabs for that category. Will my noble friend ensure that general practices check on a regular basis where appropriate that there are such jabs as are necessary for the housebound who are eligible?

I thank my noble friend for congratulating me, but I should not take any credit for this; it is thanks to the dedication of all the people who work in our health and social care system, and the innovation we have seen in the public and private sectors over many years to tackle many of these conditions. I will look into access for elderly people at home and commit to write to my noble friend.

My Lords, at the outset of this pandemic, the emphasis appeared to be on hands and touching for transmission of Covid. This appears to have changed to contamination by airborne particles and wearing masks, which makes more sense for a respiratory virus. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House whether this analysis is correct and publish the evidence showing the efficacy of face coverings?

As the noble Lord will know, there has been a debate on the efficacy of face coverings. The Government believe that they do contribute, along with a number of other measures. One of the things we have to be careful of, when we talk about one measure, is not to diminish the importance of other measures. As a noble Lord who spoke earlier said, all these measures are important—washing hands, opening windows and making sure you are socially distanced—as well as wearing masks. Rather than isolating one preventive measure, we think they all contribute together.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what progress has been made on the provision for the visually impaired of lateral flow tests capable of being used without the help of a third party?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I am not aware of the answer, and I will commit to writing to him.

My Lords, there is good evidence through a randomised trial of 300,000 people that shows the efficacy of mask wearing, but that is not my question. We should be pleased that RSV infections in children are lower this year—I am sorry, I should have taken my mask off; surgeons are used to speaking with masks on. We should be pleased that RSV infections and bronchiolitis in children are significantly lower this year, but there are lessons to be learned both for epidemiological studies and for research. Are the Government or the Department of Health engaging in that?

I thank the noble Lord for removing his face mask; I know it is supposed to be a preventive measure, but it prevented me hearing his question. We are following the epidemiological picture for RSV and are regularly updated, both in the NHS and in the department.