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Volume 823: debated on Thursday 23 June 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they have taken in response to the national incident declared due to the polio virus being found in London sewerage systems.

The established UKHSA public health response mechanism has been stood up in line with national polio guidelines. This national incident means that a national team has been set up to manage and co-ordinate these actions across areas, which is standard procedure for many of the health threats that the UKHSA foresees and manages. Although samples have been detected in London, the UKHSA is working to ensure that other areas are aware and are taking actions necessary to protect populations, including encouraging people to take the vaccine.

My Lords, while the risk to the public is considered low, the declaration of a national incident will of course give cause for concern, so the Government need to communicate swiftly and clearly about the situation and to ensure that children in particular are vaccinated against polio, especially as there is lower vaccine coverage in London among younger children. What is being done to address this situation and how will the Government roll out their messaging, working with local authorities, schools, the NHS and GPs, who already have added pressure from being contacted in greater numbers by the public who are concerned about vaccinations? Can the Minister reassure your Lordships’ House that he is working closely with the Treasury to ensure a properly funded communications and vaccination campaign?

We should start by being clear about what has been found. As part of routine surveillance, the MHRA analyses sewage from a number of treatment works and looks at what may be identified—it is world-leading in this. We should pay tribute to the UKHSA for its world-leading work and for being ahead of the game in spotting potential health risks early. It is normal for one to three vaccine-like polio viruses to be detected each year in UK sewage samples, but those are usually one-off findings. In this case, a vaccine has been detected; it is probably related to someone having had the polio vaccine and having shed it as part of their faeces. A couple of things will now happen. First, the MHRA will go further down the system to see whether it can isolate where that came from. Secondly, the messaging is quite clear: you must get your vaccine. Most people get their vaccines as part of a routine. They get it twice in preschool and then at school at 14 as their final booster. However, there are some areas of low vaccination, and we are making sure that we are rolling out that message along all the channels mentioned by the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the World Health Organization pronounced Europe free of polio 20 years ago, but that was clearly not the case globally. Its emergence here is surely a reminder that a highly infectious disease anywhere can become a highly infectious disease everywhere. Is it not also a reminder of the need therefore for vigilance against such infectious diseases, which are not beaten until they are fully beaten globally? There are other diseases such as TB where there is not even a vaccine. Will my noble friend consider the importance therefore of renewing the UK’s commitment to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to ensure that, once and for all, this beatable disease is beaten?

My noble friend makes a very important point. Even though a number of countries have been declared polio-free, including the UK because of our high level of polio vaccination, we should be clear that it has been detected and it has derived from someone having had a polio vaccine, probably an oral vaccine—the sugar cube that many of us will remember from our youth, rather than the injection that a person receives now as part of their 6-in-1. That has the potential to spread, and it is why the UKHSA is monitoring it. The important message is to remind everyone: check your red book, check your medical records, check your vaccination record. If you have not been vaccinated against polio or have not had the booster, go to your GP and get it as quickly as possible.

My Lords, what is unusual about these detections is that several positive ones have come from the same sewage facility over a few months. It is worth noting that this kind of polio virus community transmission in London has not been detected since the 1980s. Genomic testing has subsequently revealed that these positive samples are all related, suggesting the virus has been spreading through one or more individuals in London over recent months. Can the Minister give us more detail and tell us what action is being taken by local public health scientists and local authorities? Does the department consider it may be part of a trend? Many noble Lords can remember polio vaccinations—I had a vaccination and then my younger brother had a sugar lump, which I thought was distinctly unfair. Is there a plan to start vaccinations in the area?

Vaccination is already part of a national plan. People should be vaccinated at certain ages—I think it is in the first few months, and then in preschool and then at about the age of 14, when they get their booster at school. A couple of things could have happened. Someone may have travelled overseas, had the oral polio vaccine and then excreted it into the system—and it has happened on more than one occasion. On top of that, the important message is: check your records and make sure that you are vaccinated. It is not a matter of trying to get a new vaccine; it is already part of NHS routine. We encourage more people to come forward.

Can the Minister clarify further what we will do to encourage vaccinations, while schools are still open, for 14 year-olds and for the 11% of under-twos in Greater London who are not vaccinated at the moment?

Part of the public health message has been focused on making sure that people come forward, even before this was detected in the sewage works. One thing we saw as a result of lockdown was that some parents in some areas had not taken their young children to their doctor to have the vaccine. Let me be clear: at eight, 12 and 16 weeks, a child gets a 6-in-1 vaccine; at three years and four months, as part of the 4-in-1 preschool booster, they get it; and at 14 years they get one at school as a teenage booster. Some of those are pre school. We are encouraging people to check their red book, check their vaccination record and make sure they take their child in for their vaccine.

My Lords, one of the paradoxes of ministerial Statements on issues such as this is that the more transparent Ministers are, the more the risk that it will create a sense of concern in the public. The history of public health problems over the past 50 years gives us the knowledge that the best way to deal with these issues is the maximum transparency at the most regular and immediate opportunities. That is the way ultimately to relieve concern and I recommend it to the Minister. On a specific issue, can the Minister give a little more detail on the decline in vaccinations throughout the country, particularly in London, during the Covid pandemic? I assume that the natural concern with vaccination for Covid led to a fairly substantial decline in vaccinations for other diseases. Can he give us a little more information on that?

First, I thank the noble Lord for his recognition of one of the challenges of ministerial office, as he will know from his own experience. It is important that we recognise that vaccine-derived polio has the potential to spread, but it is rare and the risk to the public overall is limited. The majority of Londoners are fully protected against polio and will not need to take any more action, but the NHS will begin reaching out to parents of children under five in London who are not up to date. But we are asking for it both ways and for parents to check their records. Let us be clear that the UK is considered to be free from polio, but we recognise a potential risk given our world-leading surveillance of sewage.

On the noble Lord’s specific question, we are quite clear that people must come forward for all vaccines. Sometimes during lockdown people were unable to see a doctor or nurse in person, and the NHS is catching up with that anyway, but the NHS will keep sending the message to try to identify people who have not been vaccinated. At the same time, we are encouraging people to check their records. Let us be clear: we detected this very early in the chain, and it has perhaps come from someone who took an oral vaccine overseas and has excreted it into the system.

I congratulate the UKHSA and the Environment Agency on the investment they have made. When was the polio first detected—there are reports that it was detected as early as February—and when might they be able to narrow down the area in which it has been found?

I thank my noble friend for that question. There is routine surveillance that happens anyway. However, in this case they have detected it in more than one surveillance. Quite often, it is seen as a one-off and then not seen again for some time; in this case, it has been detected at each interval of the surveillance. We know it is from the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works—in that part of London. I must be careful about the words I use here: clearly, it is mixed up with a lot of other stuff, and we must now work out how we go along the pipe, as it were, and investigate individual pipes to see whether we can locate the source. In theory, it might be possible to find individual households or streets but it is too early to do so. What we are doing here is really world-beating: it is a first and shows that we are ahead. However, one issue in being ahead is that we detect things that would not have been detected earlier, and people are worried about them.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the stark difference at the moment in the quality of vaccine records’ availability? I declare an interest in that a consultancy of which I am a director works with Palantir, which has been part of the extraordinary change in the Covid vaccine records. Does he recognise the need to update the rest of the NHS so that the information on hand to patients, which has been so valuable in the system here, is more widely available for polio and other vaccines?

The noble Lord makes a really important about the future of the NHS and our health services. Last week, the Government published the Data Saves Lives strategy, which is what it says on the cover. One of the first issues we must tackle is digitising the NHS as much as possible. Digitisation is one of my three priorities, alongside sharing data. First, this will ensure that we can identify population health issues and patterns in conjunction with AI; secondly, giving appropriate access to researchers allows us to continue to be world-beating in identifying such issues. In future, it may well be that we can get a sample, use a bit of AI—thanks to other data sets—and locate more accurately. At the moment, we are really at the cutting edge of this. What will be vital to it is the digitisation, sharing of and access to data across the system.

My Lords, is it known how many countries are using the live vaccine, which is different from the vaccine we are using?

I am aware that there are still some countries that use the oral polio vaccine, as opposed to the IPV we use in this country. I do not have the exact numbers with me. If the noble Baroness with allow me, I will go back to the department, see if that information is available and then write to her.

My Lords, water quality in east London is appalling enough without this scare. I spoke with three of my neighbours yesterday, all with very young children, and not one was aware of this campaign. What steps are being taken to ensure sufficient and urgent awareness is created among East End multilingual communities, who are already struggling with a daunting array of health and well=being information?

As it happens, I was at an event yesterday at which a GP from east London was present; we were talking about the whole range of issues, not just this specific issue. Let us be clear: no one has got polio and no cases have been identified. We have found it in the sewage, and it probably came from someone who had the oral vaccine overseas, came to the UK and excreted it into the system. there are no cases of polio at the moment—we should be absolutely clear about that—but we are saying that this is a warning that people should ensure that they get vaccinated and check their records.

The noble Baroness makes a really important point about health disparities and there are lots of issues we must tackle. I have said many times that we must see how we can work on a community-led solution, rather than having someone in Westminster or Whitehall who thinks they have all the answers. To be honest, we have to show due humility and say that people sitting in this House can sometimes be out of touch with those communities.

My Lords, as my noble friend has said, the polio disease still exists in other parts of the world. When immigrants come from different parts of the world—not just from Europe—are they examined, checked and given polio injections immediately, or does it take time?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I am not sure of the exact details on when they are informed but let me go back to the department and ask. What I do know is that, when immigrants come to this country and register with their local GP, there is a health check and, quite often, a questionnaire to raise awareness about what vaccines or treatments they may have had and to ensure that they are as up to date with their vaccinations as the existing populations.