Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that we hear the criticisms and inquiries from the Opposition as being in the best motivated sense of the public interest
Does she also accept that we understand that there are several different approaches to how best to handle the matter? However, it would be of great reassurance to the House if she could tell us that no budgetary or financial constraint will be imposed to restrict what she believes and what the expert advice, which we recognise to be unsurpassed in international terms, suggests should be done right now.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those points. I agree with him. We have already committed some £200 million to preparing for a flu pandemic. We
17 Oct 2005 : Column 635
are continuing to review what preparations will be needed. As we assess what preparations are appropriate, we will make that money available.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): The Secretary of State seems to be presiding over a certain amount of chaos. Her Department has been considering the issue for a period of time and we can argue about whether it has made enough provision at the health end, but I am concerned about the publicity.
More than 300,000 people keep poultry and chickens and do not have the sophisticated communications that she is talking about. Many will have been listening to and watching the BBC and other news outlets and discovering that a real crisis is heading in their direction. That is how it has been presented for two weeks. People who have poultry outside do not know whether to bring them in or to start getting rid of them, and all of a sudden they are being told that it is not quite so urgent and that the problem may not come until next year. Could the Secretary of State use the proper outlets, magazines and newspapers, for the Department to state clearly what the situation is for those people, rather than blaming the media for running away with it when the Department is partly to blame?
Ms Hewitt: I somewhat regret the tone that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen to adopt. The extent of our preparation is reflected by the fact that the earlier version of the contingency plan is a substantial, detailed and weighty document.
I understand, as does the right hon. Gentleman, the enormous concerns of people who operate or work in poultry farms about the outbreak of avian flu in Turkey and other countries. I am assured by my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who have responsibility for animal health, that they are working extremely closely with poultry farmers and workers to ensure that they have proper information. As the right hon. Gentleman may not have heard the "Today" programme this morning, I refer him to the comments of the president of the National Farmers Union, who said that he was satisfied with both the preparations and the communication with poultry farmers and workers.
Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Is there any evidence of humans being infected from eating infected poultry meat? Given that the outbreak was identified as originating in southern Asia, will there be any restrictions on imports from that area? If not, would not it be advisable to introduce labelling that allows customers to identify where the poultry they are purchasing is from? Will my right hon. Friend discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
My hon. Friend raises two extremely important points. I understand that imports of poultry from countries where there has been an incidence of avian flu are already banned. I am also advised by the Food Standards Agency that there is no evidence of infection from eating thoroughly cooked poultry meat. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is content, from
17 Oct 2005 : Column 636
discussions with the industry, that the risk of avian flu spreading to domestic poultry remains low. At this stage, therefore, there is no need for the industry to bring free-range birds indoors. That issue is being dealt with extremely thoroughly, as I have just shown, by DEFRA.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What steps are the Government taking to ensure that people in the vulnerable sections of our community, who are most likely to be at risk, such as the elderly and the very young, are protected? Some people in those communities traditionally have not taken advantage of the benefits available to them and may not be in a position to get the information that she is disseminating in the community. What steps are being taken to assist such people?
Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. For seasonal flu, the advice is that people aged over 65 or in other at-risk groups, such as children with asthma, bronchitis or other specified diseases, should be immunised every year. We have already run the annual information programme on that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to encourage his constituents who fall into those vulnerable groups to get the flu vaccination this year. It is sometimes forgotten that in some of the earlier flu pandemics in the last century, contrary to the expectation that the very old and the very young would be most at risk, it was among people of working age that the infection and the death rate was highest. That is why we should not be too hard and fast, at this point, about where the greatest risk would be should pandemic flu occur. We give that clear advice regarding seasonal flu, and I hope that this year we will surpass even last year's very high rate of more than 75 per cent. of over-65s getting the seasonal flu vaccination.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): We should purchase the gloves, masks and gowns, and should not worry about disposal, because we have incinerators around the country that were used effectively during the foot and mouth problem and at other times. Let us not mess about. Let us get the order in.
I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is working closely with DEFRA. Does the Department of Health have expertise that she can supply to DEFRA if there is overstretch regarding veterinary surgeons?
Ms Hewitt: Let me reassure my hon. Friend: as I said before, those orders are being placed. Our co-operation with DEFRA is extremely close, although obviously we look to that Department on veterinary matters just as it looks to us on human health matters.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con):
There seems to be a problem in the media in separating the human disease from the bird disease. As a poultry keeper, my concern is that people who keep poultry are likely to be most at risk from the disease jumping from birds to people. Should people dispose of their poultry and will those who keep poultry or other birds be in the high-risk group?
17 Oct 2005 : Column 637
Ms Hewitt: At this point, that is predominantly a matter for DEFRA, but I understand that there is no immediate risk of avian flu in the United Kingdom. Should avian flu occur in the UK, with the risk increasing, the preparations would be stepped up as well. However, as I said earlier, DEFRA's advice to the hon. Gentleman and other poultry farmers at this point is that there is no need to bring free-range birds indoors or to take other precautions, apart from the obviously sensible hygiene precautions that would, I am sure, be routine in any well-kept poultry farm.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): It is impossible to identify the strain at this stage, so it will inevitably be some months before it is possible to manufacture a vaccine. Indeed, it is conceivable that the virus will mutate as it spreads around the worldif that happensthereby delaying the manufacturing process. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that Europe has sufficient manufacturing capacity to meet the needs? On seasonal flu, will she state clearly and unambiguously that people in the at-risk groups should go and get their jab soon, as their GP will invite them to do?
Ms Hewitt: On the latter point, as I have already said, it is sensible for people in those at-risk groups to get their jab against seasonal flu every year, and I hope that this year we will have even higher take-up of that immunisation than usual.
Vaccine manufacturing is a global industry. We are fortunate in Europe in having a significant vaccine manufacturing capacity in the European Union, but there is a shortage of the raw materials that are essential for producing the vaccine. The industry depends on a high level of scientific knowledge and manufacturing capability. It is not easy simply to enter the sector and decide to set up a vaccine manufacturing capacity; if it were easy, it would have been done. That is why we are working so closely with the industry to see whether, globally, it is possible both to speed up and scale up the production of vaccines.