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"pays grateful tribute to the excellent work of the emergency services, of Transport for London and of all involved in responding to the terrorist outrages of 7th July and 21st July; congratulates the Government on its comprehensive approach to preparedness for emergencies; notes the effectiveness of current Departmental responsibilities for emergency preparedness; further congratulates the Government on the steps taken to enhance communication with the public in respect of major threats; notes that supplies of vaccines, antibiotics, antidotes and specialist equipment are strategically placed around the UK for rapid deployment in the event of a mass casualty incident, and that spending on the stockpile to date exceeds £120 million; further notes that NHS organisations have well-established, comprehensive plans in place for dealing with pandemic influenza, and that the Government's updated pandemic flu contingency plan is being published today; welcomes the fact that the Government is stockpiling key drugs and equipment, and will have enough antiviral drugs to treat 25 per cent. of the population by September 2006; and recognises that good communication with the public and with health professionals is crucial before and during a pandemic and therefore congratulates the Government on making accurate and up to date information widely available to doctors and the public through various agencies."
Let me start by completely endorsing the first statement in the Opposition motion, which is also reflected in our amendment. We all share a deep appreciation of the response of the emergency servicesand, as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) mentioned, Transport for Londonto the terrorist outrages in July. In last week's debate on the emergency services, hon. Members from both sides of the House praised those who work on the front line, and I am sure that that will happen again today.
I am also sure that we would all agree that the tragic events in July underlined how important it is for the Government to prepare for major incidents, whether intentional or accidental, caused by conventional, chemical or biological material, or as a result of a natural disaster. That is why the Government have put in place a programme across all Departments to cover all parts of the United Kingdom. That is the capabilities programme, as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said, and it identifies the action that each Department would need to take in the event of a major incident to ensure resilience across the UK. For example, my Department leads on ensuring that essential services for health care, such as pharmaceutical dressings, would be available in the event of a major incident. Each Department has such plans in place.
At central Government level, we identify future risks. The civil contingency secretary to the Cabinet Office considers the potential impact on the UK of any risks. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and the accompanying non-legislative framework, set out the arrangements and responsibilities at local, regional and national level for preparation for, and response to, emergencies. Regular major incident exercise and training programmes are undertaken across all agencies, involving international partners if appropriate. Those exercises enable us to test out the plans and familiarise staff with their roles in the event of an incident, and to update and improve the plans if necessary. We also learn the lessons of tragic events, such as those in July, and
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I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has attended several meetings on that very issue.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend had a chance to learn the lessons from hurricane Katrina? It seems to me that our Government could learn several lessons from that event, not least the advisability of putting hospital emergency generators undergroundbecause they were flooded in that incident. There were also clear weaknesses in evacuation plans and half of the civil service has been laid off, because of the inability to pay public sector workers. Does my hon. Friend also agree that the American experience demonstrates that having a Minister for homeland security is no guarantee of an effective response?
Ms Winterton: We are considering the lessons that can be learned from hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake. The former demonstrated the need for proper co-ordination at all levels, which sadly appeared to be lacking in that instance. We are confident that the processes that we have set in place ensure that such co-ordination is possible, at local, regional and national level, as well as between Departments.
Jonathan Shaw: An example of emergency services working together on the ground occurred at Boscastle, although it was a considerably smaller incident than those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). It was a natural occurrence that saw examples of great co-ordination, even though we did not have a Minister for homeland security. What is essential is good communication between Government and confident, well-resourced local agencies.
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right; the issue is about co-ordination between agencies and, as he says, ensuring that we consider what happened in each case. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety visited the police in that area, and is examining the other lessons that can be learned. She praised the work that was done.
My right hon. Friend will, I am sure, address some of the other issues relating to the Opposition's comments about a Minister for homeland security, but I want to move on to the issues raised about pandemic flu by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
I agree with the hon. Lady that the American political system is different from ours and the federal system does not easily translate, so not everything is applicable. What is of enormous interest, however, is the American investment in the Centre for Communicable Disease Control in Atlanta, which deals not only with epidemic and pandemic science but with animal and human infections and, indeed, zoonoses. Has the Department considered that? Could it give us some pointers to link the efforts of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health to deal with communicable diseases?
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Ms Winterton: I shall be coming to some of the work that we are doing internationally, especially on pandemic flu, but there is of course a read-across in terms of relationships with other research bodies. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the Health Protection Agency, which does excellent work in that field.
I want to examine the work that we are doing internationally, nationally and locally on pandemic influenza. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire began his contribution with questions about some of the action that DEFRA was taking. I am sure that he is aware that DEFRA published a contingency plan in July, which addresses issues such as forewarning poultry farmers about the action that they need to take. Surveillance is already under way both in the UK and across Europe, and I can assure him that DEFRA is taking all necessary action. We have close co-ordination with the Department on the issues that he raised.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health told the House on Monday, we take seriously the issue of an influenza pandemic. As has been said, up to 25 per cent. of the population could be affected and we have to plan for at least 50,000 deaths, but it is important to stress that so far avian flu has not mutated to a form that can be transmitted from human to human.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): We are all equally grateful that mutation has not taken place, but from previous pandemic experiences we know of the speed with which viruses can travel across the world and the likelihood of that can only increase. Why did it take until March 2005 to produce the plan that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) raised with the Minister in October 2004, when there is a limitation on resources to access vaccines and antivirals?
Ms Winterton: I remind the hon. Gentleman that a plan was in place; it was introduced in 1997 and we hold regular meetings to look into its implementation. In addition, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that we have been implementing parts of the plan and were able to learn certain lessons when we updated it in March and July. Our preparations for pandemic influenza are among the best in the world. The World Health Organisation has recently said that we are one of the leading countries in the world in terms of our plans and preparations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for asking that question, to which he has not received a good answer. The multi-phase contingency plan, published in 1997, did not refer to the preparation of an antiviral stockpile because antivirals were not available in that form with that proven effectiveness at that time. Yes, we are ahead of many other countries, but the French, Belgians, Dutch, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Americans, to a limited extent, and Germans were negotiating to purchase an antiviral stockpile before the point at which the British Government entered into a contract to purchase a
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stockpile of antiviral drugs. My hon. Friend asked a perfectly reasonable question. Why were we not among those at the forefront of such planning?
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