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Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to provide medical support to prevent the spread of diphtheria in the light of reports of a sharp increase in cases linked to Channel migration.

In response to an increase in cases of diphtheria in November 2022, the UK Health Security Agency issued guidance recommending that new arrivals into initial accommodation sites be offered a diphtheria-containing vaccine and a course of antibiotics in addition to wider health protection interventions. The UK Health Security Agency is working with the Home Office, NHS England and local NHS teams to ensure that this ongoing intervention is delivered.

I thank the Minister for those words. It is amazing that the Home Office has rejected the support and experience offered by the Association of Directors of Public Health, whose president criticised

“the lack of information, co-ordination and engagement from the Home Office”.

This resulted in the situation being

“far worse than it could have been”


“put both asylum seekers and … hotel workers at avoidable and preventable risk”.

Why was the assistance offered by the directors of public health “rebuffed”? That is their word. Who in the Home Office took that decision, and why? Will it be immediately reversed?

All I can say is that the Department of Health co-operates very closely with the Home Office. We have a screening programme for all migrants coming in, as I mentioned, and an 88% vaccination rate for diphtheria among them, compared with 93% of UK children. It is a very high rate indeed; that record speaks for itself.

My Lords, as the Question implies, the UK has an excellent record on uptake of vaccinations, but my noble friend will know that the level has fallen among children for the MMR vaccine. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the most vulnerable are given this vaccination and that rates go back up to pre-Covid levels?

We are all aware of the rumours and allegations about the safety of the MMR vaccine, which we are all delighted to know were totally unfounded. As my noble friend says, it has been quite a task to regain confidence in it, but we are doing so and vaccination rates have gone up. I will provide her with the exact details of those new take-up rates.

How are the Government working with those countries through which migrants pass when fleeing for their lives from war zones, given that many of them are held in very poor conditions where they pick up infectious diseases, including such things as scabies—which are parasites—TB and other diseases? They may also be exposed to chemicals because they take on farm work or factory work in a desperate attempt to get some money prior to arriving in this country. By working with other countries, we may decrease the burden on our NHS and prevent people presenting late with conditions such as diphtheria or even cutaneous diphtheria, which is extremely rare in this country but is now being seen in some of these very deprived populations.

To be honest, I think the most effective method is to have the screening when people enter. Refugees come in from across the world so, to concentrate resources, it is best done on entry. The record speaks for itself; an 88% take-up rate is very high, comparable to that of the general UK population. I think we have got it right.

My Lords, coming back to the original Question, does the Minister accept that during the Covid pandemic the role that directors of public health played locally was critical to ensuring a co-ordinated and effective response? Does he agree that it is a great pity that the Home Office seems to have refused to engage with the Association of Directors of Public Health on this? Will he assure the House that the Home Office will start to engage with this organisation?

I am probably best placed to speak about how we engage with the Home Office, which we have been doing pretty successfully. I agree with the noble Lord about the role that those public health directors played during Covid and will play going forward. UKHSA is very much committed to doing that as well. As I said, our record on interactions with the Home Office speaks for itself—it is pretty good.

My Lords, I am very pleased to see that UKHSA has issued guidance in response to the increased number of cases, but it will be important to know how effective the response and the screening are. What plans are there for pathogenic screening and other forms of surveillance going forward?

I thank my noble friend. I was just talking about the first stage; we have a follow-up where we look at not just diphtheria but HIV, hepatitis, TB and other cases, on top of surveillance measures that UKHSA takes into account, such as wastewater surveillance screening. We have a full toolset to make sure that we capture any potential diseases early on.

My Lords, to follow on from the question by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood, last week the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases published a report on the rise of diphtheria cases, noting that:

“Linked to an increase in migrant arrivals via small boat in … 2022, the UK experienced a sharp increase in diphtheria cases”.

Its report recommends that border officials and doctors should all have training on screening and identification of symptoms of infectious diseases, such as diphtheria and others outlined by other speakers. Will the Government implement this specific recommendation? Can the Minister say whether, on arrival, all asylum seekers are now offered a full health check and vaccination with doctors?

As I mentioned, we are doing the screening. We lead Europe on this; my understanding is that no other European country is taking the extensive measures that we are. I can also reassure the House—I was speaking to Susan Hopkins on this just yesterday—that UKHSA has deemed that there is a very low risk to the general population. The uptick in cases that we are talking about is in the migrant population, and the fact that we are vaccinating 88% of them against diphtheria shows that we are on top of the problem.

My Lords, we know only too well from pandemics that diseases do not respect borders, and though, as the Minister says, we ought to be well protected against diphtheria in this country given the vaccination programme, recent increases in vaccine hesitancy have given cause for concern. On the steps that the Minister referred to that should be taken to maximise vaccination rates, can he indicate whether this will reflect regional variations, bearing in mind that the National Audit Office has reported a lower level of vaccine take-up in London?

Absolutely. As the noble Baroness is aware, vaccination take-up is the responsibility of the ICBs in their areas. Like many other places, London has unique demographics. As I mentioned, our record is pretty good in this area, but it needs to be done nationally on a uniform scale.

My Lords, in response to the questions from my noble friend Lord Roberts and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the Minister has twice told us how well his department’s officials are working with the Home Office. But his department’s officials are not present in local communities; directors of public health are. Can the Minister undertake to lobby the Home Office on behalf of the public health officials to make sure that they similarly have a good dialogue with the Home Office, which does not seem to be the case to date?

Clearly, I am always going to support good dialogue—that is common sense, and we should do that. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and 88% is a very good result. That notwithstanding, clearly it makes sense that they should work closely with local officials as well.

As I say, compared with 93% in the UK population—who have many bites of the cherry, for want of a better term, because there are many opportunities for them through schools and everything—88% is very good. Is it perfect? No, but it is very good and definitely better than anywhere else in Europe.