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Ms Hewitt: I very much regret that the hon. Gentleman has chosen not to give any credit at all for the great success over many years of the targeted winter flu programme. Nor has he chosen to acknowledge the fact that in 1996–97, for which I happen to have the figures, vaccine production for the United Kingdom was a mere 6.1 million doses. For last winter, the figure was double that—12.3 million doses—and for the current year and the current winter season it will be nearly 14 million.

As I said to the House, the number of people in the risk groups—I mean by that the over-65s and younger people who are clinically at risk—is some 11 million. Therefore, it was the conclusion of the Department of Health that the availability of 14 million or so doses this year would be sufficient not only for 100 per cent. immunisation of the at-risk groups but for immunisation of carers, whom it has always been open to GPs to immunise.

When we discussed this issue at a recent Health questions, one of my hon. Friends said that he had been unable to get his vaccination. I went back to the Department to check and found that, as I had believed to be the case, there had been delay in production from one of the companies on which we rely for the vaccines. That problem in production was corrected some weeks ago, so the vaccine that should have been produced by that company has now been produced and, as I understand it, delivered.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the uptake figures. The figures that I have, which have been made available to primary care trusts from a large number of GP practices, show that at the end of October—these are the latest figures that I have—the uptake of the flu vaccine was very similar indeed to that for last year. If one looks, for instance, at the figures for the over-65s, one sees that, by the end of October this year, 48.9 per cent. had been vaccinated. By the end of October last year, the figure for elderly people was in fact 55 per cent. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked for the figures; perhaps he would like to listen.

This year, for younger people in the clinical risk groups, 25 per cent. had been immunised. By the end of October last year, the figure was 28 per cent. That is why the director of immunisation for the Department says that there is no evidence to support the proposition that a much higher proportion of people in the at-risk groups have been asking for immunisation. I have spoken to the chairman of the BMA to ask whether it has any evidence of a sudden upsurge in the past few weeks in requests for immunisation. He said that he did not, in fact, believe that there had been but he is to some extent relying on anecdotal reports, as do we in relation to reports from GPs of increased demand by people whom I did indeed describe as the worried well who do not fall into the at-risk groups for whom we recommend immunisation but who none the less may wish to try to obtain the vaccine.

The most important issue at this point is ensuring that we provide supplies of vaccine to GPs who, for whatever reason, do not have enough. That is the problem. As in every previous year, GPs have placed their orders. The total number of doses available to the country is about 1 million higher than in the previous year which, in turn, was about 1 million higher than the year before and so on. A number of GPs, however, have run out of vaccine, which is why we are doing everything possible in the
 
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Department to fulfil our responsibilities and ensure that the supplies that we already have are delivered to GPs who have run out as quickly as possible and that we secure fresh supplies as quickly as possible and in turn make those available to GPs who need them so that everybody, particularly in the at-risk groups, who wants a flu vaccination this winter can have one as soon as possible.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I am grateful for sight of the Secretary of State's statement.

Does the Secretary of State accept that central Government have only two things to do? They must ensure that the emergency stockpile is adequate and they must monitor what is happening on the ground. Does she accept that the Government have failed on both fronts? We are told that the emergency stockpile will expire in a few days and, from what she has said, the Department does not appear to have a clue about what is going on. In her statement, she said that problems "may be due" to certain factors and used the words "possibly vaccination" and "awareness may be". Frankly, the Government do not know. Will the Secretary of State admit that she cannot say what has happened to all those vaccines? Does she know where they are and who has had them?

Has not the Department of Health been grossly complacent about the issue? I and Conservative Front Benchers wrote to the Secretary of State in the first half of October, but she told us today that the Government had to rely on anecdotal evidence in late October and more recently. Why did she not take action when hon. Members contacted her to alert her to the issue? Is the Department not guilty of gross complacency? How many pensioners have gone to GP surgeries and been turned away? Does she have any idea how many we are talking about? Given that many people face a barrier when going to have a vaccination—it is an ordeal even to think about it—how many will never come back because they have been turned away and simply do not want to face it again?

The Government need to take responsibility instead of blaming GPs for prescribing to the wrong people, because there does not appear to be any evidence that GPs have done so. Did the Secretary of State ask the BMA if its members had been prescribing to the worried well and, if so, what did it say? I do not imagine that it said that its members had been doing so. If this is how the Government cope with predictable seasonal flu, which they know about every year and for which they have plenty of time to plan, can we have any confidence that they will cope with a much bigger flu pandemic if we have one?

Ms Hewitt: When the hon. Gentleman accuses my Department of complacency and a lack of preparedness he is simply talking rubbish. At the beginning of the year, my Department did what it has done every year since we embarked on this programme—talk to the industry about the amount of flu dosage that would be available and ensure that it would be more this year than it was last year. As I said, there has been an increase every year for the past eight years in the amount of vaccine for winter flu available in our country. When we began to receive information and calls from GPs who were running low on supplies, we immediately took
 
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steps to set up a national audit, from which I have cited figures to show the position for the at-risk groups by the end of October. We also contacted the industry to secure more supplies. We were accused by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) of not contacting the industry until the middle of November. In fact, that was the second time that we went to the industry to secure more stock for departmental supplies because of the problems that GPs had encountered.

The fact remains that for the winter flu vaccine programme—this is a different arrangement from the one that is in place for childhood immunisation—general practitioners have always been responsible for ordering and administering the flu vaccine. Given the overall amounts—some 14 million doses—that have been delivered in our country, we can be clear that GPs have ordered at least the same amounts, if not somewhat more, compared with last year.

As regards possible pandemic flu, the arrangements that we are already making for obtaining antivirals and for obtaining vaccines are based on the system that we use for childhood vaccination—in other words, a central ordering system. The only central ordering system that we have for the winter flu vaccine is the relatively small but now increasing stockpile that we use to supplement the far larger amount that GPs order, based on their own patient lists and knowledge of the number of patients who fall within the at-risk groups. As I stressed, it is important now to ensure that we continue to do as we are doing, to obtain as much additional stock as we can and supply that to the GPs as quickly as possible.

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): In my constituency, in at least one health centre, those in priority groups—the over-65s—have been told not only that supplies are exhausted, but that it is too late in the season for new supplies to be obtained. Is it the case that a seasonal cut-off date has until now been applied to the supply of vaccine?

Ms Hewitt: No, it is not the case that there is now a cut-off date and that my hon. Friend's elderly constituents are too late for the flu vaccine. As I said, we are distributing a significant number of doses—indeed, we have orders for some 200,000 doses that we are starting to distribute. We are taking further orders, which we will fill as more vaccine becomes available. As I mentioned, we have already placed an additional order for a further 200,000 doses—that is, on top of our initial order of 400,000 doses—so an additional 200,000 doses of flu vaccine will become available in January, and will continue to be made available to GPs who need it for their elderly patients and other at-risk groups. I hope that my hon. Friend will reassure his constituents that, if they are elderly or in the at-risk groups, they should seek to get their winter flu jab, even if it is a little later than they or, indeed, we would have wished.


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