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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Fairly recently, hon. Members on both sides of the House took part in a promotional exercise to seek to draw to our constituents' attention the availability of influenza vaccine and the necessity for the elderly, particularly, and those at risk to use it. We did so, confident of the information made available by the Department of Health that there was sufficient available. Clearly, that
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confidence was sadly misplaced. In the small village of Birchington in my constituency, over the past few days, more than 50 people have presented at Courts the chemist carrying prescriptions for vaccine that is not available. A ring-round suggests that no chemist in the area has any vaccine at all. It is no good saying that it will be January before the vaccine arrives. When will people get it?

Ms Hewitt: As I have just told the House, we already have orders from GPs who have run out of vaccine, and we are filling those orders. We still have several thousand doses of flu vaccine in our own stockpile. Those are being made available to GPs in the order in which GPs place their orders to us. We will continue to fill those orders and, because of the problem that has emerged, we have secured additional stocks of flu vaccine. We have done so despite the fact that the manufacturers are reporting far higher global demand than was the case last year, so we have responded promptly to the problem that has emerged.

I stress to the hon. Gentleman that the GPs in his constituency are responsible this year, as they have been for every year since winter flu began, for placing their orders. They did so. The number of doses available to our country is significantly higher than last year, and was sufficient for 100 per cent. take-up of the vaccine among the elderly and the other at-risk groups. It is something of a puzzle, it is fair to say, that at a point in the year when, by the end of October, only about half of the over-65s and only about a quarter of the under-65s at risk had been immunised, the stocks have already run out. There are clearly lessons that need to be learned for next year. This year, the priority is to get our stocks out as quickly as possible to the GPs and replenished, so that other GPs who have not yet placed their orders can get them.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Given the cost to the economy of millions of people missing work with flu, is it not time to examine widening the at-risk category to allow anyone who wants an influenza jab to obtain one free of charge?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. We constantly keep under review the groups for which we recommend a winter flu vaccine and take advice from the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I declare an interest—as a result of the session in the Palace of Westminster, I am one of those who has fortunately had the winter influenza jab. I fall into the vulnerable group. Was the Secretary of State actually alleging that general practitioners have not ordered as many doses of flu vaccine as they should have done this year? If the Department of Health were to order a larger quantity of vaccine in order to hold a larger balance in case of an outbreak or pandemic, would the vaccine go off? Does the flu vaccine go off after a time, which would prevent the Department ordering a larger quantity? I agree with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) that a far wider group should benefit from the vaccination.

Ms Hewitt: As I have said, because the flu virus takes on a different form each year, it is not possible to
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stockpile winter flu vaccine from one year to another. As we did with considerable success in previous years, this year we ensured that GPs placed their orders in the usual way, and we placed an order for a relatively modest, but none the less significant, stockpile of 400,000 doses in case any GPs faced difficulties. I have already referred to one manufacturer having a problem with one of its production plants, which has delayed the delivery of supplies to some GPs who rely on that particular company. Last year, there was also a problem with a production facility, but we were able to step in.

We do not know exactly how many doses each GP ordered, although the overall figures suggest that GPs ordered at least as many doses as they did last year—they probably ordered more than that. Those supplies have now run out, despite the fact that at the end of October the same proportion of people in the at-risk groups had been vaccinated as last year. We are ensuring that our stockpile is distributed to GPs as quickly as possible, with the exception of a small amount that we have ring-fenced for poultry workers, and we are supplementing that stockpile with the additional 200,000 doses to which I referred earlier.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will recall that I gave her some anecdotal evidence about the matter in this House on 17 October, and she asked her officials to make sure that there was not a problem of the kind that I described, which was the appropriate ministerial response. As she has said, however, we still do not know what has happened, which is a problem and a puzzle. People such as me were asking whether it was likely that demand for seasonal flu vaccine would increase because of the attention paid to avian flu, but did the Department factor that point into its calculations? If there is a question about the vaccinating practices of GPs, is there any check on whether they are giving the vaccine to priority groups only?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises important points. He refers to the problem that he had encountered, which he mentioned to me on 17 October. After that, I checked with the Department and established that there had indeed been delays because of production problems with one manufacturer. Those problems were overcome and the delayed supplies were then delivered to the GPs who had ordered them. We also put in place a national audit process so that we could track exactly what was happening. GPs regularly provide information to their primary care trusts, mostly through the computer system, on the numbers of people in the at-risk groups whom they have vaccinated. I gave those figures and proportions to the House.

If somebody who is not in an at-risk group asks for a flu vaccination because they think that it might be a good thing to have this year, perhaps because of the publicity that they have read about avian flu, that does not mean that a GP necessarily should or will give a vaccination to that person. GPs are not required to report to PCTs on vaccinations given to people who fall outside the at-risk groups, although those figures might become available later in the year when they claim reimbursement for such vaccinations. We have
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stressed—we did it again in the letter that went to GPs—the need to focus on the priority groups. Those people are most in need and will most benefit from the vaccine. Given the shortages that have arisen in so many GP practices, it is absolutely essential that supplies are reserved for those groups.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that GPs will be directed to stay within the at-risk patients guidelines for the vaccine so that the worried well, who are allegedly being vaccinated, do not receive the vaccine until the crucial groups are catered for? Given that we face an extreme winter period, surely the vulnerable must be first in line to get this much-needed vaccine.

Ms Hewitt: I agree. The whole point about having priority groups is that they should get priority. The letter that went from the Department yesterday to the flu co-ordinators and the advice that goes through them to GPs stresses that the vaccine should now be directed towards the priority groups—the elderly, younger people at clinical risk and carers—who are at risk.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that not all of us who are in the categories that qualify for the flu jab have responded? I suppose that I qualify, having had a tumour removed and a heart bypass. I have a lot to thank the national health service for, and I rise to support it again. I have heard the figures. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in the last year of the Tory Government there were 6 million flu jabs, yet this year there have been a record 14 million flu jabs? When I have mine next week, if I go—I found out this morning that it will be available—it will be 14 million and one, at least. Can there be a more sickening sight than Tory MPs who voted against—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State will answer just one supplementary.

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with all the points that my hon. Friend has made. In particular, I stress that more vaccine has been made available in Britain than ever before, and that it has been received by people who are, I hope, predominantly in the priority groups for whom it is of most benefit.

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