Health Protection Agency (Yr Asiantaeth Diogelu Iechyd) (Establishment) Order 2003 and Health Protection Agency (Yr Asiantaeth Diogelu Iechyd) Regulations 2003

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Miss Johnson: I join other members of the Committee in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths, and thank the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon for his welcome to me in my new role. I should say that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell welcomed me on an earlier occasion.

I am glad to have this opportunity to set out the case for creating the Health Protection Agency. Nevertheless, having listened carefully to all the points made in the debate, I remain surprised that the Liberal Democrats have seen fit to call for the statutory instruments establishing the agency to be annulled—that is what we are here to debate this afternoon. I shall try to respond to each of the points that have been made today, but I make it clear now that I do not believe that any of them amount to a convincing argument that the agency should not exist. Indeed, I believe that there is a powerful, overriding argument for the agency.

Why do we want establish the agency? Recent events have made us all much more aware of the risks posed by chemical, biological and radiological threats. We are increasingly conscious that, no matter where we live in the United Kingdom—I agree with Opposition Members on this point—we are only

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hours away from any traveller or food that may have come from exotic countries. However, imported infections are not the only issue that we need to tackle. We must also be able to respond to the fact that health care increasingly uses new technologies and procedures that, while they bring benefits, may increase the risk of infection. We are also seeing more patients with immuno-deficiencies, which make them more susceptible and vulnerable to infection. In addition to those natural threats, there is the spectre of the deliberate release of pathogenic organisms such as anthrax and smallpox, as well as chemical or radiological agents. All those factors have led us to look afresh at the way in which we can best respond to threats to health and protect our population. The recent emergence of SARS has underlined the threat from infectious diseases and the need for an effective response.

Against that background, which has made this area possibly even more important than it was before, I am glad that for the first time the Department of Health has in place a formal strategy for tackling infectious disease. The chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, published ''Getting Ahead of the Curve'' nearly 18 months ago. The strategy brings together a great deal of information about infections and in so doing helps to raise awareness and understanding of the dangers that they pose. It also sets out a number of actions that together provide a systematic approach to preventing and controlling infectious disease. The CMO's strategy observes that

    ''this country is respected internationally for its work on infectious disease surveillance''

and that we have

    ''traditionally had a much stronger public health system than many other countries''.

However, it states that

    ''the present system falls short of what is necessary fully to protect the public health.''

The CMO makes the valid point that

    ''Good surveillance is the cornerstone of a system to control infectious diseases in the population.''

The measures that he proposes are designed to provide precisely that.

At the centre of the strategy is the creation of the Health Protection Agency. I make no apologies for the fact that of all the proposals in the strategy, that is the one to which we have given top priority. The agency's creation is important in its own right, but it will also help us to achieve many of the other actions described in the strategy. Our aim in creating the agency is to strengthen our arrangements for the specialist support on which local NHS bodies rely in serving their populations. Previously, various different bodies have supported the NHS on a number of different topics. Advice on infectious disease has generally come from the PHLS, while the National Focus for Chemical Incidents and various regional service provider units have given help on chemical hazards. Regional advisers have supported the health contribution to emergency planning, while consultants in communicable disease control have taken

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responsibility at local level for much of the action relating to infectious disease and to other hazards.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said that there had previously been an alphabet soup of arrangements, or words to that effect. One of the strengths of the new arrangements is that, from 1 April, responsibility for all those types of support has been held by the HPA. That means that primary care trusts, hospitals and primary health care teams, local authorities and others who undertake health protection and emergency planning are now supported by specialists who are part of a regional and national agency and can supply expertise and back-up and run programmes on their behalf.

It is worth emphasising that the agency can provide help and support in relation not only to infectious disease but to chemical hazards and health emergency planning more generally. We also want it to have a role in relation to radiological protection, and we have made it clear to the agency and the NRPB that we expect them to work closely together to improve services to those who rely on their advice and support. That wide-ranging role for the agency is an important development for several reasons. It is not always immediately clear, when an incident occurs, whether it has a chemical or an infectious source, so it will be helpful to have a single agency that can provide access to all the relevant expertise. I also expect to see benefits as different specialist areas learn from one another: by placing different responsibilities in a single, unified agency, we should achieve greater cross-fertilisation of good ideas and good practice than we have in the past. Taken together, the changes mean that we now have a single national agency capable of delivering a coherent and unified specialist health protection service for the benefit of the public.

Chris Grayling: Will the Minister give way?

Miss Johnson: I will, but the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon asked many questions to which I have not yet begun to provide detailed answers.

Chris Grayling: I hope that in 33 minutes the Minister has a chance to do both. She has just talked about a single national agency, but we do not have a single national agency. Unless I am mistaken, we are still one united kingdom, but this is not a United Kingdom body.

Miss Johnson: I shall come to those points in a moment. It will be difficult for me to answer all the questions that the hon. Gentleman has posed if we duck and dive throughout the subject.

We now have a single national agency, which strengthens our capacity to respond effectively to a chemical, biological or radiological incident. It also helps us to contribute in an integrated way to a range of international initiatives, so enhancing the high reputation for health protection that the UK already has in the international community.

Such plans may seem easy enough to set out in theory, but the agency is already responding in practice to the vision that we have set out for it. We have appointed a strong and well-qualified set of non-

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executive directors to the board, under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart. The agency has committed itself to achieving 10 key gains by providing: a one-stop-shop to investigate infectious disease, poisons, chemicals and radiation hazards; a more comprehensive early warning system to pick up diseases and new threats to health, drawing on a wider network of laboratories operating to uniformly high standards; better anticipation and preparation for threats to health through horizon scanning, looking ahead to the impact of forthcoming technologies and developments, nationally and internationally; monitoring the long-term effects of a wider range of hazards; a dedicated emergency planning resource; an integrated response to emergencies involving chemical, biological, nuclear or radiation agents; the same high standards of response to an outbreak or incident from Cumbria to Cornwall; easily available, authoritative and impartial information and advice for the public; more knowledgeable and skilled health protection staff and more research into health protection.

The HPA has also embraced the opportunity to establish itself from the outset as a modern, forward-looking organisation. It has adopted a set of values, committing itself in all its work to transparency and openness, high standards of corporate governance, integrity and value for money, and working in partnership with other organisations to develop and deliver programmes and policies and ensure public involvement. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon asked about engagement with the public; that is one of the agency's key values. The agency's work will be based on the best evidence available and the highest clinical and public health standards. There will be a strong emphasis on staff education, training and personal development and the quality of people's working lives.

A number of questions and criticisms have been raised today and I am glad to have an opportunity to respond to many of them. Opposition Members expressed concern that the speed of the agency's establishment has been or might continue to be disruptive to its work or that of its predecessor bodies. We have recognised throughout our work to establish the agency that the issue known in the jargon as business continuity needs particular attention. Almost 3,000 members of staff have transferred to the agency, from many different organisations. We therefore emphasised in the preparations for the agency's establishment that transfers of responsibility must take place on the basis of business as usual.

The agency has been in operation for almost three months and it has got off to a flying start. Just before its creation, we were faced with the emergence of a new infectious disease—SARS, the first global health emergency of the 21st century. Working with the World Health Organisation and international colleagues, the newly created HPA played a significant part in characterising that new pathogen, putting appropriate health protection measures in place and issuing advice to the Government, health professionals and the public.

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Staff transfers are complete and no second stage of TUPE would be necessary if the agency was recreated as an NDPB.

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