Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): The Secretary of State was right to thank NHS staff for trying to cope with the current problems, but he came to the

10 Jan 2000 : Column 27

Dispatch Box to suggest that all was well, and those staff know that all is not well. Patients, especially those who have been carted around the country in search of beds, know that all is not well; and those who are in the areas where there are no beds for sufferers are very much aware that all is not well.

The Secretary of State likes to speak of critical care beds. Will he clarify the position relating to funded intensive care beds? In September, he conducted a survey to establish the numbers of both intensive care and high dependency beds, and he has put those figures together. What is the number of intensive care beds? The Intensive Care Society, to which we spoke today, did not know the answer, and feared that the number of funded beds might have fallen.

The fact is that the overall difficulty experienced by the NHS results from a lack of flexibility. It lacks the resources to cope with a peak demand of this sort, even at its current level, which has not yet exceeded that of last year: the graph is still the same. Is it not a fact that, so far, the NHS has not turned the corner, following 18 years of misrule by the Conservative party--years that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) tried so conveniently to forget?

Having moved from the Treasury to the Department of Health, does the Secretary of State now regret his former team's decision to introduce a 1p cut in income tax while the NHS was still clearly underfunded, and was still experiencing the difficulties of the Conservative years?

Mr. Milburn: Let me issue a small health warning to the hon. Gentleman. Before quoting figures relating to money, he should consult his own party's manifesto for the last general election, which makes interesting reading. The Liberal Democrats promised an injection of an extra £500 million a year for the NHS--a pittance by comparison with the extra money that the present Government have invested in it.

The hon. Gentleman made a more serious and substantive point about the number of intensive care beds. He was right to say that the last Government did not even know how many such beds were available in our hospitals. That is why we instituted a census to establish the number; the results will be published shortly. The extra 100 critical care beds are a mixture of intensive care and high dependency beds. As I speak, we have approximately 1,570 intensive care beds and 800 high dependency beds.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): Last Friday, I visited Stepping Hill, my local hospital. I am pleased to say that, despite a record number of emergency referrals to casualty over the past two weeks, there were no unacceptably long trolley waits and no ambulances stacked outside, and beds and treatment were available to all who needed them. That visit was in marked contrast to my visit to the same hospital at Christmas in 1997, when there were a record number of trolley waits, stacked ambulances and a lack of beds throughout the region. Of course, the Conservative party was in power at the time. [Hon. Members: "No!"] It all seems such a long time ago.

One reason why the problem has been managed so much better this Christmas is the fact that there has been much better planning, along with co-operation with

10 Jan 2000 : Column 28

general practices and community services and a great deal of commitment on the part of staff at the hospital. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating those staff on managing this Christmas crisis?

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I should like to remind the House that it is question time, not statement time, so will Members please put questions to the Secretary of State, not compliments?

Mr. Milburn: With regard to the recollections of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), time certainly flies when you are enjoying yourself, Madam Speaker. What she says about the position this year is right. It is borne out by what many senior clinicians and managers have been telling us--that the NHS is better prepared and planned than ever before. I have been particularly pleased to see a high level of co-operation in many areas, including her own, between the NHS and social services. Not too long ago, the NHS and social services viewed each other as enemies on opposite sides of the fence. It is heartening that, on the ground, they now co-operate. That can only be to the benefit of patients.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): The Secretary of State will know about the tragic death last week of my constituent Mr. Harold Smith of Ross-on-Wye, who died in a bed in Bridgend after being moved from Herefordshire because no intensive care beds were available. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending condolences. The internal investigation is under way, but can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the flu crisis caused the lack of beds in Herefordshire which caused Mr. Smith to be moved?

Herefordshire has gained one more intensive care bed since the Government came to power, but what will the effect be on the new hospital that is being built in Hereford--the number of beds will be cut from around 400 to just 250 by 2005? Will the Secretary of State assure the House that that number will be sufficient to deal with any influenza crisis? Will he assure me that he will review the position to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again?

Mr. Milburn: May I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance and pass on my condolences to the family of Mr. Smith? As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, an internal inquiry is taking place. That is due to report shortly. I do not want to pre-empt it, but I understand that human error is the most likely cause of the tragedy.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have provided extra hospital intensive care facilities since we came to office. I know that he lobbied extremely assiduously and successfully for a new hospital, which is being built through the private finance initiative. It might help him to know that we are making available additional capacity for up to two extra intensive treatment or high dependency beds. In preparation for the new hospital, further ITU nurse training will be undertaken during the next financial year.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): The people should know that influenza injections work. I have had one each year for the past three years and I have not

10 Jan 2000 : Column 29

had flu for three years. It is the same for people throughout the country who have had the injections. However, a problem arises with some groups of people: they fear the needle. The injection is painless; it is a couple of pin pricks. That may seem of little importance to Members, but to people outside who face the prospect of injection, it is important. They should feel absolutely reassured.

Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that sensible advice. It is good advice. We and the chief medical officer continue to encourage people, particularly the vulnerable and those in at-risk groups such as the elderly, even now to go to their family doctor and to be vaccinated against the flu. It is not too late; and it is a sensible action. I hope that many elderly people and others at risk, such as those with chest and respiratory problems, will consider doing so.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I visited the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother hospital, Margate this morning. I found it heaving with patients, with admissions being accommodated in day care beds because every other bed was full. I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to staff there and at the Queen Victoria Memorial hospital, Herne Bay, who are doing their best to cope. They tell me that one of the problems that they face is a lack of staff not only through long-term staff shortages, but through sickness too. We have heard much about the flu vaccine. How many people in the NHS--not just medical staff but ancillary staff--have been offered and have taken up the vaccine?

Mr. Milburn: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the staff at his local hospital. As I said in my statement, we acknowledge that the NHS, particularly in the acute sector, is extremely busy and that staff are doing a quite remarkable job. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the actual numbers on staff flu vaccination, but I can tell him that, this year, for the first time, we made flu vaccination available to NHS staff. Although that was a sensible precaution, it has not proved to be successful in every case, and there have been quite high levels of staff sickness. Nevertheless--although not every NHS staff member decided to heed the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)--I have no doubt that staff vaccination has had an impact.

Hon. Members will know that the current flu bug is particularly nasty; that it affects NHS staff just as it affects everyone else; and that not only hospitals, but schools and businesses across the country are being affected by it. Nevertheless, the views expressed by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) were sensible, and we shall seek to learn lessons from this year, and to determine whether, next year, we can vaccinate even more NHS staff members against the flu.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): Is it not depressing that there are people around who find it impossible to talk about any issue at all without turning it into a political game? When even an influenza epidemic has to become a political football, is it surprising that the people who engage in such games are not household names even in their own households?

Will the Secretary of State clarify one matter? I speak from self-interest--like my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), as a recipient of the

10 Jan 2000 : Column 30

flu jab--and am not clear whether the strain of flu that I was immunised against is the strain that is sweeping the land. Is it, or is it not?

Next Section

IndexHome Page