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Ms Winterton: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been planning the purchase of antivirals and considering vaccine immunisation. I will come to that later in my contribution, by the end of which I hope to have illustrated and reassured the hon. Gentleman that the plans that we have in place are adequate, that they are kept under constant review and that, as I have said, they are considered to be among some of the best in the world.
We work with international partners, including the European Union and the World Health Organisation, to enhance global preparedness for an influenza pandemic and to support vaccine development. We have been at the forefront of international work on mathematical modelling and surveillance. We jointly chair the flu pandemic preparedness strand of work of the global health security action group of G7 countries. Earlier this year, we hosted an international mathematical modelling conference, which was the first of its kind on pandemic flu.
On vaccine development, we are working very closely with other countries, the WHO, the European Commission and manufacturers to ensure that a vaccine against pandemic flu can be developed as quickly as possible once, of course, a pandemic influenza strain emerges.
We are taking an active part in international discussions on avian and pandemic influenza. As part of our EU presidency, we have included the issue on the agenda for the EU Health Ministers informal meeting tomorrow. I will also attend an international meeting of Health Ministers in Ottawa next week to discuss pandemic flu preparedness.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Minister talks eloquently about meetings, plans and thoughts. I am delighted that there is at least something on paper, no matter how late it might be or otherwise, but my constituents are utterly confused.[Interruption.] They managed to overcome their confusion at the general election. When will the Minister tell us about a coherent plan to explain all this to the people who are very confused and afraid?
I hope that the debate will provide an opportunity for us to ensure that we explain the situation. Of course, the chief medical officer has taken action today to update the plan and to issue communications to the public and the health service about our preparedness in the UK. Let me stress again that we were one of the first countries to publish a pandemic contingency plan. The plan, which was updated in March, is being reissued today by the chief medical officer, as I have said. It provides the overall framework for an integrated UK-wide response, and it sets out what action we should, and can, take before a pandemic strikes and what we need to do when it arrives. Obviously, the plan examines how we can reduce the health consequences of a pandemic as much as possible. It also analyses the disruption that a pandemic could cause to essential services and people's daily lives. As we have said, measures such as antiviral
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treatment and immunisation will be the best way to address the situation when they become available. We are preparing the NHS and society as a whole as best we can.
Patrick Mercer: I have been impressed by the newspaper campaign on seasonal flu, which is helpful, useful and reaches the parts that other campaigns do not reach. I take it from what the Minister said that something similar is about to follow from the chief medical officer.
Ms Winterton: That will include public information, too. It is important for all of us with responsibility for the matter to ensure that we get the message right so that the public understand the necessary action that must be taken.
The updated copy of the plan, which is based on new mathematical modelling, shows that a pandemic could be over more quickly than we thought, but could affect more people at its peak than was thought. It shows that the same overall number of people would be affected as was thought, albeit in a shorter time. That obviously means that the NHS must examine its local plans. The plan has also been updated to reflect our antiviral strategy. For example, there is consideration of the use of walk-in centres and pharmacists for the distribution of antivirals.
I thought that the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) were slightly disparaging about some of the research and meetings and the plans that we have been drawing up. However, they are an extremely important aspect of the work that must be done, especially on research and development, which is key to the effective preparedness for pandemic flu. The Medical Research Council the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) also asked about this matteris actively involved in our preparations and its chief executive is going to south-east Asia shortly to determine what further research the council can do. As I said earlier, we are working closely with the Health Protection Agency on its research strategy, especially regarding surveillance procedures.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): It seems to me that we have 60 million people in the United Kingdom and thus 60 million sets of eyes and ears. The Minister says that the Government are trying to get information out, but I am not entirely clear what information she wants to give to the public.
We must set out in our plans the facts about avian flu. We must make the differences between
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avian flu and seasonal flu absolutely clear. We need to indicate what we currently have a vaccine for and what we must develop a vaccine for in the future. For example, we need to make it absolutely clear that it is important for people to get their seasonal flu vaccinations. We need to emphasise that even more than ever. However, we have to ensure that people understand that that is not a vaccine against what avian flu might become if it mutates into a pandemic influenza. We want to reassure people that we are doing all we can to develop a vaccine if the virus mutates into a form that can be transmitted from human to human. In addition, we need to make it clear that there is no conclusive evidence that the H5N1 strain of bird flu, even though it can be passed to human beings, can be passed between them. Those are the sorts of messages that we need to get across. We also need to communicate our messages to the NHS, but we have been very effective in doing so as part of our contingency plans.
Let me emphasise how closely we have been working with researchers, regulators and manufacturers to ensure that we have a vaccine as soon as possible after we have identified the pandemic strain. We estimate that, once the strain has been identified, it will take between four and six months to start production. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire asked when that will happen. The chief medical officer announced today that a request for tenders will be placed tomorrow for that advance purchase of vaccine. As I said, we are one of the first countries to do that: I understand that out of potentially 180 countries, only four other countriesAustralia, Italy, France and Canadahave already placed so-called sleeping contracts in the past few months. We are therefore well ahead in terms of placing our contract. That has enabled us to ensure that our order is placed for the most up-to-date vaccinethe second generation in terms of vaccine development.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Did not Australia start to get to grips with the problem months ago? It put in orders for surgical masks and gloves, which I understand came from a UK company, and as a result it is now hard for us to get those supplies for the NHS.
Ms Winterton: I shall talk later about surgical masks and gloves and tell the House what action we are taking. I repeat: we have been praised for the plans that we have put in place. Different countries have chosen to act in different ways, but we have been praised for the fact that our plans are detailed and consider all aspects of what might happen in the event of pandemic flu.
I do not want to detain the Minister, but I am concerned. We are hearing a great deal about preparations for a human epidemic or pandemic. What we have not heard is that this is currently a veterinary problem, not a human medical problem; what the process is for preventing the disease becoming endemic in our bird population; and what symptoms people who keep back yard chickens, for example, should be looking for. That is the sort of information that some of the confused constituents of the hon. Member for Newark
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(Mr. Mercer) might want to hear at this moment. What should people be looking for in the bird population, whether domesticated or wild?
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