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Invasive Group A Streptococcus and Scarlet Fever

Volume 826: debated on Monday 5 December 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of their guidance to doctors and to parents in light of the increase in Strep A, iGAS and Scarlet Fever cases.

The UK Health Security Agency has declared a national standard incident to co-ordinate the public health response. It is working with schools and GPs where there are outbreaks to provide information on scarlet fever and iGAS. A rapid surveillance report and communications to the health system have been published to ensure heightened awareness among front-line clinicians. We are also putting out key messages for parents to understand the trigger points for urgent referrals of children with more serious cases.

My Lords, UKHSA has reported today that, in the last 10 weeks, it has received 4,622 notifications of scarlet fever, compared to an average of 1,200 for the same period over the previous five years—that is more than three times. Parents with very sick children report being turned away from hospitals or GPs not prescribing antibiotics. Local directors of public health are talking to schools and GPs, but can I ask the Minister what else can be done to ensure that all cases of potential strep A and scarlet fever are tested for, and treated as appropriate at the earliest moment, to avoid serious illness and death?

I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this important issue before us today. To give context and answer the point, there were about 850 cases in the latest week, compared with about 186 in previous years. Generally, in peak years such as 2018, we had as many as 2,000 cases per week. We are not at those levels at the moment, but we seem to be seeing an earlier season: we normally expect levels to be higher in spring. At the same time, it is essential that we are alert. We have given instructions to doctors that they should proactively prescribe penicillin where necessary, as it is the best line of defence, and that they should be working with local health protection teams to look at whether to sometimes use antibiotics on a prophylactic basis where there is a spread in primary schools, which we know are the primary vector.

My Lords, the UK Health Security Agency is to work in collaboration with the public health agencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What level of collaboration has taken place on issues around strep A and scarlet fever, and what have been the results and outcomes? I am aware that there have been some cases in Northern Ireland.

I know that the health agencies in each country work very closely together. I do not yet have the specific details, so I will happily follow up on this. I know that they are working very closely because it is clearly an area of concern. Right now, we have not seen any evidence of a new strain, so we think that we are looking at existing strains. We are seeing this number of cases because of a general situation where there is less immunity in the population because of the isolation related to Covid.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that, on social media, there have been a number of recommendations by health professionals that concerned parents should go to their GP to seek advice. Yet he will know that GPs are under considerable pressure. The GP patients survey showed that over a third of people did not see or speak to anyone when they could not get an appointment at their GP practice. What special arrangements are being made to ensure that parents can get through the system to get advice?

I thank the noble Lord. At this point, I put out the general message that, if parents are aware that their child is unwell, particularly drowsy or dehydrated, that is when they should look to seek medical advice. They should start by using paracetamol and ibuprofen. Clearly, if there is no response, they should be particularly concerned and absolutely making sure that they are getting access to the surgery—to a nurse, as well as a doctor, in this case. This is clearly a priority area. We need to make sure that there is access for those people.

Following on from the question by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, if the child presents symptoms after 6 o’clock at night or over a weekend, they will clearly be dependent on out-of-hours service. What is the department recommending that they do? Should they go to A&E in these circumstances? It is obviously absolutely vital that, if the child has meningitis or scarlet fever that may develop complications, they should be attended to and given medical assistance as soon as possible.

I can probably draw on a personal illustration. In answer to a question a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how I used 111, and in this case I think the advice would be to use 111. In that instance, I was able to get access to a doctor. On that basis, if the symptoms are there, to take that example, a doctor can arrange for a prescription to be sent to an out-of-hours pharmacy. The most important thing in these circumstances is to get antibiotics quickly. The first thing I would say is to use 111. Obviously, A&E is always there, but a more effective route would be through 111.

My Lords, the Minister and noble Lords will know that parents across the country are deeply worried by this situation. To pick up the point that the Minister has just made about the 111 service, perhaps he can respond to the concerns that have been raised by some medical experts that the NHS’s 111 service is not fit for purpose in effectively identifying and triaging critically ill children.

All I can say on that is that, clearly, that is not acceptable and we need a situation where it can, and that is why we should have inspectors. If we are using 111 as a backbone service, as we are in this case, it is vital that people are getting proper advice. By the way, I see a lot of that, and it is something that I am personally involved in now, as well as using it digitally—a lot of these things can be done through the use of the apps and so on—but, clearly, we need to make sure the advice people get is sound.

I would advise—and again this is personal advice—that, if they have not got a response and they are concerned about their child, it is probably better and quicker for them to drive, if they are able to. Clearly, if there is a 999 ambulance response because they cannot get to the hospital quickly, then that is a fallback, but if they are able to drive with their child and they are concerned in that way, my advice would always be to go for safety first in this. Again, as a parent of a four year-old and seeing the chatter on social media over the weekend, I know this is an area of concern. Clearly, we need to make sure that reassurance is there for everyone.

My Lords, I had scarlet fever twice as a child, two years running. I seem to recall a doctor called at my home, diagnosed and prescribed. Also, at that time—it was the late 1950s—my library books were taken away for fumigation, and I was kept in isolation. Why can we not have that sort of service today?

That is a serious question, and I think many of us would love that kind of service, but we know we are living in an age where the community doctor in that way does not exist. It was way before my time, but I think changes were made to GPs’ contracts which means that, unfortunately, that is not part of the standard service that people have any more, which is why we rely on 111 and other services as back-up.