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Service Accommodation

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What steps he is taking to improve the standards of accommodation for service personnel at UK military bases. [17620]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): Through new building and upgrade programmes, we plan to achieve sustained improvement of single living accommodation, providing trained personnel with well-equipped single rooms with en-suite facilities. On current plans, over
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33,500 such rooms will have been provided in the UK by April 2009. We also have projects under way to modernise our service families' accommodation.

Mr. Kidney: Does my hon. Friend agree that the question of spending on accommodation for our service personnel is as important as the debate about spending on weapons procurement, especially when we are discussing rates of recruitment and retention? Will he say a little more about the priority that he is giving to raising standards of accommodation for service personnel, particularly those who have to live on military bases?

Mr. Touhig: My mission statement is simple and has been endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence: we value servicemen and women and their families and we will take every practical step to demonstrate that. One clear way of demonstrating how much we value them is by improving the quality of their accommodation. Attitude surveys show that that is important for service morale and will make an important contribution to recruitment and retention. We have an extensive programme of investment in servicemen's and family accommodation. One of my priorities is to see whether we can accelerate that while I occupy this office.

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Avian Influenza

3.30 pm

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD) (Urgent Question): May I ask the Secretary of State for Health what plans her Department has made to tackle an influenza pandemic?

The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government take the risk of a flu pandemic very seriously indeed. Since 1997, we have had a plan for a flu pandemic, which because of the increasing global risk and awareness, we have substantially revised. An updated version was issued in March this year outlining the actions that Government and other authorities are taking. We are working across all Government Departments and sectors and are revising the plan to take into account comments received. An updated version will be published on Thursday this week.

As the chief medical officer has stated:

We take that threat very seriously. The Government have been taking increasing action, particularly over the past 12 months, to prepare for such a pandemic.

We are fortunate in having some of the best scientific and medical experts in the world leading our work on pandemic preparations. The World Health Organisation believes the United Kingdom to be one of the best prepared countries in the world. None the less, we will continue to step up our planning and take proportionate actions based on the best available evidence to reduce the impact of a pandemic in our country.

It is not possible, of course, to predict with confidence when the next influenza pandemic may happen. The H5N1 virus that is circulating in poultry in south-east Asia and in other regions, including Turkey, is presenting a huge challenge for animal health. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking appropriate steps to reduce the risks of avian flu spreading to birds here.

H5N1 has caused about 60 deaths in humans to date. The virus has so far affected only people directly working with infected birds. It is not readily transmitted from person to person, which is, of course, the key characteristic of a pandemic virus. None the less, in May this year, the WHO stated that the virus

A human influenza pandemic could have serious implications for the UK. As the chief medical officer explained publicly yesterday, a flu pandemic could affect around 25 per cent. of the UK population. We estimate that there could be at least 50,000 deaths as a result of the pandemic, compared with around 12,000 flu-related deaths every year, and it could be significantly more.

The NHS is well used to planning for and responding to emergencies, but every country will face enormous pressures in the event of a flu pandemic. In order to help the NHS, we have published operational guidance on contingency planning and we are funding exercises that will test NHS plans locally and those of other stakeholders.

We are backing up the contingency plans with practical action. Antivirals will provide the first form of defence against pandemic flu. We have ordered over
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14.5 million treatment courses of Tamiflu to treat people who may fall ill. This month, we will have 2.5 million treatment courses. By the end of March, we will have nearly 7.5 million and the full stockpile will be complete by September 2006. We have, of course, issued guidance to inform local NHS planning for the distribution and storage of those medicines.

The other medical intervention that we are pursuing is vaccination, which will offer the best form of protection against pandemic flu, but a vaccine cannot be manufactured until the exact flu strain is known, so it will take around four to six months until the first stocks of an appropriate vaccine become available. We are working closely with the manufacturers, other countries, the European Commission and the World Health Organisation to ensure that a vaccine can be developed as quickly as possible once a pandemic flu strain emerges. That will allow us to put arrangements in place to ensure production of vaccine for the UK population. As a further precautionary measure, however, we have also ordered between 2 million and 3 million doses of an H5N1 vaccine, delivery of which will commence early next year.

One of the cornerstones of preparedness for pandemic flu is research. The Medical Research Council is actively involved and its chief executive will be going to south-east Asia in the next few days to see how the MRC can most usefully contribute. The Department is working closely with the Health Protection Agency to have in place a research strategy on vaccines and surveillance. We are developing clinical management guidelines with the Health Protection Agency and the British Thoracic Society to help inform management of patients who are suffering from pandemic flu. We are working with the HPA to finalise infection control guidelines that will provide valuable advice on how to reduce the risk of spread of the virus.

Good communication with the public and with health professionals will be absolutely crucial both before and, of course, during any pandemic. We have seen recently that some of the messages in the media about avian flu, pandemic flu and seasonal flu can be confusing. We want to try to ensure that the public are provided with clear and accurate information about pandemic flu and its possible consequences. We have already carried out extensive testing with the public of communication materials that would be used in the event of a pandemic.

During the summer, the chief medical officer alerted all doctors to the guidance and advice that is available on the Department of Health and the HPA websites. This month we will send packs of information, including that already available on the websites, to GPs and other primary care professionals. We are taking a leading role internationally in discussions on avian and pandemic influenza and, in the UK's role as EU presidency, I have made this a major item for our discussion at the EU Health Ministers' informal meeting later this week.

There is widespread public concern about the risk of pandemic flu. We need accurate information and the media have an important role to play. There is no direct threat to members of the public in the UK from the current outbreaks of avian flu elsewhere in the world. This is a bird disease. There is no reason for people to stop eating poultry. Nevertheless, it is very important for protection against seasonal flu that people aged over
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65 and other at-risk groups who are recommended to have vaccination should make sure that they receive their vaccinations as normal.

We will of course continue to review and step up our preparations so that as far as any country can be fully prepared against the risks of pandemic flu, we in the UK will be prepared.

Steve Webb: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that helpful reply. Will she confirm that the chief medical officer's estimate of 50,000 fatalities is based on the central assumption that 14 million men, women and children will contract flu and show symptoms of it? If so, what range of possibilities is she looking at, because presumably her Department is also preparing for worst-case scenarios? Will she give us a range of the outcomes that she is considering?

The Secretary of State has just told us that 2.5 million doses of antiviral have been stockpiled. Will she say something about prioritisation? In the event of a pandemic affecting 14 million people— the Government's number—before a stockpile for 14 million has been built up, who will get the antivirals first? Will some people get antivirals on a prophylactic basis—in advance—and which people will miss out? Given the problems we have in the country when there is a shortage of fuel, is the Secretary of State confident that she has robust plans in place for a situation where 14 million people have the symptoms of an illness that is proving fatal to tens of thousands and there is a substantial shortage of antivirals? What measures are in place to deal with that scenario?

What plans does she have to stockpile other antivirals such as Relenza in the event that new strains develop resistance to Tamiflu? Will she confirm that she is estimating about 1,500 admissions to hospital for every 1 million of population? What plans does she have to make sure that the NHS has sufficient capacity to deal with that level of impact?

The Secretary of State's 2005 operational framework says that every primary care trust should have in place a contingency plan for tackling a pandemic. How many PCTs have such a plan in place now? Does she believe that her plan to reorganise PCTs and health authorities will help or hinder their preparedness to tackle a pandemic, and will she postpone that reorganisation if it gets in the way?

Finally, I turn to the Health Protection Agency's estimate, given in its own documentation, that it will take six to eight months to develop a vaccine following first identification of a human strain of the virus. Why has the Secretary of State now given a shorter estimate, and what is she doing to bring down the lead time on the production of a vaccine?

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