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We know nothing further about Mexico at the moment. As far as I know, there is no further information. The World Health Organisation is very aware of the need to
ensure that the matter does not become a case of rich versus poor. Curiously, there have been no cases in Africa. The WHO feeling was that, given the number of people with low immunity, cases would have been reported there, but, at the moment, that has not happened.
Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not here, I think I can safely say that we would not follow the route that Egypt announced today. As I said on Monday, we see no reason to affect the British pig industryand no reason for any country, anywhere to start slaughtering stocks.
Clearly, it is commonly accepted that this country is one of the leading countries for preparedness, but now it has come to applying the plans. It is important for people to remain calm, but that requires confidence in the system, and confidence that the procedures are robust, that there is absolute clarity about the advice, and that all parts of the systemfrom the national to the regional to the localwork in concert.
There was a report in todays Evening Standard and on the BBC, which raises some concern about clarity of advice. First, it appears that there are shortages of Tamiflu in pharmacies in many parts of the country. What is happening to ensure that Tamiflu gets to the pharmacies so that doctors and patients can get hold of it when needed?
There are reports in London of confusion about whether health protection units or GPs should carry out the tests. There is also confusion about whether patients should go to the GP practice. A case has been confirmed directly to me of a patient being told to go to the GP. There are other cases of people being advised to stay at home and that someone will visit them. Will the Secretary of State provide absolute clarity on all those matters to ensure that people understand what to do?
The Secretary of State said that masks are available only for health and care workers, yet he is ordering 60 million. That seems a substantial number for that purpose. Will he clarify precisely the range of people who should use them? Will they be available for informal carers, who look after people at home? If so, will advice be given to that end? If someone is confined at home because of a potential outbreak, what about other people in the home? Can they carry out their normal business and leave the home, or should they be confined, too?
On school closures, it is an anxious time for parents, with many schools preparing for the exam season. Are there contingency plans in place and will advice be given to the education system to ensure that people understand what is supposed to happen?
How much money has been allocated in the Department of Health to tackling the potential pandemic? Will the Secretary of State confirm the assumptions on which the Department is working about its progression?
Alan Johnson: On the important question of the availability of antivirals, it is important to stress, as we did on MondayI certainly did in a conversation with the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)and make it clear to the public that the Tamiflu that can be bought at the chemist is not depleting the stocks that we have made available in the event of a pandemic. Those stocks are protectedthey are in warehouses and they are secure. Obviously, we must take measures, as the various regulatory agencies have done, to ensure that no system of selling Tamiflu is developing now. Measures have been taken to avoid that and to ensure that we keep stocks of Tamiflu available for the patients who need them, rather than for people who are stocking up personally.
I have read some of the reports about London, and we will ensure that matters are clarified. Certainly, the leaflet that people will receive from Monday and the advertising that goes out tomorrow will make what happens clear. The health protection units will be crucial to ensuring that we get to the people who have symptoms of swine flu. We will ensure that we put all our resources into isolating and dealing with those cases properly.
The figure of 60 million masks has to be seen in context. Some of them come from different suppliers and have to used and replaced, depending on the supplier and the quality of the mask. Sometimes masks have to be replaced two or three times a day or even hourly. That is the thing about facemasks, and that is why I emphasised how important it is that we have NHS staff who are trained to use them. If people do not replace them regularly or if they do not wear them or dispose of them properly, they could make the problem worse rather than better. The numbers of masks that we need cannot be defined at this stage, but we know that we need lots, because we are not talking about one for each person. Rather, we need replacement masks as well.
We depend for our best analysis of how swine flu is spreading on the WHOs advice. There is no one in greater authority, more respected or in closer touch with the WHO than the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson. His reputation is standing us in good stead. He has close links with the WHO, and we are ensuring that we receive information very quickly about its assessment of how things are going. It is important that, instead of individual countries deciding to go solo on this issue, international co-operation continues to drive the science.
Alan Johnson: I am sorry, I did not answer the hon. Gentlemans point about the suspension of flights. We will know more about that when we discuss it tomorrow morning. Up until now, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, on a phase 4 alert, is that people should go to Mexico only if they have pressing business and have no alternative.
Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab):
Would my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to pass on our congratulations to those working for the chief medical officer and to others in the national health service on
the state of their contingency planning and the practical measures that they have already put in place? Will he also point out, particularly to the news media, that, in an imperfect world, if the incidence of flu substantially increases, there will from time to time be errors, mistakes and delays? They are unavoidable in an imperfect world, but they should not be exploited to try to stir up hysteria among the general public, who are usually a lot more sensible than the news media, particularly the BBCs Today programme.
Alan Johnson: My right hon. Friend raises an important point about the chief medical officer, whom I have mentioned, and about NHS staff. One of the reasons we are well prepared is that we have an integrated universal health system. That is of enormous benefit in so many ways, particularly at a time such as this.
In general the news media have been quite responsible on this issue. There has been the odd exceptionI think that my right hon. Friend was referring to thatbut in general, people understand that we live in an imperfect world. There is enormous pressure on the NHS, and on public services in general, but by and large that has been recognised and there has been responsible reporting of the issue, particularly in the broadcast media.
The thoughts of my constituents are very much with the child who has caught the flu and her family and with her friends and their families. There is a great deal of anxiety in the community as a consequence of recent events. I would like to praise on record Jane English of Paignton community college, Anthony Farnsworth of the primary care trust and Torbay council, all of whom have, in different ways, been roped in during this emergency, which is effectively what it is, and who have all handled the situation extremely well. However, there are some questions that I would like to ask. Paignton community college has two sites: a lower school and an upper school. When people say that the college is closed, do they mean both sites, or do they mean just the lower school site that this pupil was attending? The stockpile of antivirals
Mr. Speaker: Order. I understand the hon. Gentlemans anxiety, and I called him to speak right away because of the case in his constituency, but he must understand that this is a statement, and that there are other [ Interruption. ] Dont worry, I will call the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) as well. Nobody has to get into a panic. The one thing that I do not want is Members putting a series of questions to the Secretary of State, so we will stop at that and let the Secretary of State answer.
I appreciate the role of the hon. Gentleman in his community, and this must be a very difficult time. We will try, as we did this morning, to keep him aware of developments in his constituency. I am afraid that I do not know whether they are closing both sites or just one. I am pretty sure that everyone is acting in the best interests of the children, but I do not have an answer to that question at the moment. I do know that the hon.
Gentleman is absolutely right to say that everyone locally has behaved in the most responsible fashion. I believe that the little girl is responding well to treatment, and we very much hope that we will be able to contain this case as successfully as we are containing other cases around the country.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for the huge amount of work that he is doing in preparation for dealing with this crisis. He mentioned the disparity involving the death rate in Mexico and the cases elsewhere. I realise that it is difficult to get information, but what representatives does he have in Mexico, and what co-operation is he getting to enable him to find out the exact strain of this virus, the location of the pig farm that it is presumed to have come from, and the way in which it mutated there? That information will clearly have an enormous effect on how fast or far it might spread.
Alan Johnson: I am afraid that I do not have any more information on the mystery of what is happening in Mexico. The Americans are certainly working very hard on this. There was a report today of the death of a baby in America, which is the first death outside Mexico. It was a Mexican baby who had gone across to America to be treated. So we just do not know, yet, but the scientists are working very hard to find the strain of the virus and to produce a vaccine. That is their major preoccupation at the moment, but it will be some time before we know those things. I will keep the House updated, and as soon as we know anything, I will report it to the House.
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): The Paignton community college happens to be in my constituency, although I do not know exactly where the child in question lives. There is widespread concern in south Devon that it will become a no-go area, that people will be told not to travel there by train, that the hotels will empty and that no one will go near the place. I think that the Secretary of State has an obligation to explain just how serious a threat this is, and just how serious it is for people not to get worried about travelling, and to carry on with their present arrangements. Can he give the House that assurance?
Alan Johnson: I certainly can. This is a phase 4 alert, but even if we were at phase 6, we would not be advising people to stop travelling around the country. If we were to do that, we would actually make the situation worse because important people would not be able to get to work and we would have a worse situation on our hands. On the situation in Paignton, I have now responded to both Members concerned, because there was some ambiguity about which constituency was affected. I hope that we have made it abundantly clearwe certainly did so at the press conference earlierthat the little girl was on the same plane from Mexico as the two affected people in Scotland. There is a clear link with Mexico. She is taking the antivirals and responding extremely well. We have contact-traced everyone who was involved with her, and there is absolutely no reason for anyone not to travel to Paignton or anywhere near there.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The virus has already jumped between species. Although the pathogenesis might be complicated, it is obvious that we need a mechanism for dealing with animals as well as humans. What mechanism has the Secretary of State put in place for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that the animal health laboratories at Pirbright and Weybridge are able to carry out full surveillance of the appropriate animals to ensure that the virus does not jump between species in this country?
Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend raises an important point of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is fully aware. At the moment, we are not at any stage where we have any fear of this being something that is affecting animals in this country. We do not import any pigs or pig products from Mexico. The various agencies are keeping this under review, but our primary concern at the moment is that this is affecting humans. We need to keep the other issue under close oversight, obviously, but as I say, I do not want any message from the House suggesting that we have a problem with the UK pig population.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Many schoolchildren and their parents in Devon and elsewhere will be very concerned about this, not least if there is an extension in terms of quarantining schools that may have these outbreaks. Will the right hon. Gentleman consult the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that there is provision for those who are barred from attending school when it comes to their exams?
Alan Johnson: I will talk to my right hon. Friend, but at the moment it is far too early to be thinking about that. I repeat that we are looking to isolate and contain this, which means it makes sense to close the school in these circumstances. I hope that other schools will not be affected, in Paignton or anywhere else, but we need to look at this on the basis of which phase of the situation we are in at the moment, and the advice of the local education authority and teachers. We will also have to deal with the situation with exams, which we dealt with during the floods a couple of years ago, as part of those measures.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend advise the House that the measures announced today will apply throughout the UK? Will he also clarify who will have overall responsibility for dealing with this issue in the UK?
Alan Johnson: These measures will apply within the UK. This is a United Kingdom strategy. It would be ludicrous for us to have any other strategy but a UK strategy. The devolved Administrations are working extremely well with us. They are at the civil contingencies committee meeting every day. As to who has the lead on this, that is not a question that should arise. We are working together very effectively to deal with this problem.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD):
If there is any doubt, the upper school is, I believe, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and the lower school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the
Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), and the child concerned [Interruption.] The child concerned is in the school in my hon. Friends constituency.
Considering that there are large numbers of elderly people and particularly vulnerable groups in south Devon, and considering the difficulties and fears that they face, will the Secretary of State meet a delegation of south Devon Members of Parliament, perhaps along with Members from other areas that are affected, to discuss these issues, because there are a number of questions that we wish to put?
Alan Johnson: I will consider whether one of the ministerial team can do that. This is a hectic time and the situation is moving quickly. I suggest that if we can deal with some of those questions in correspondence or phone calls, we will. If hon. Members require a meeting, of course, as with all Members of the House, we will ensure that that is facilitated.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I wonder whether the Secretary of State will help us. Although it is absolutely clear that the problems for humans are the key issue, it is important, in advance, to ensure that all the veterinarians in the European Community have made the decision that they will act in concert. Although we do not import from Mexico, historically we have found that if such action is taken when there is not a problem, so to speak, people at least know what will happen. I have some personal experience of that aspect.
Alan Johnson: The right hon. Gentleman certainly has more experience than I have on these issues. I will ensure that the points made by him and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tomorrow, so that we can consider giving proper information to Parliament and elsewhere about how we are dealing with these specific issues of whether there could be a switch over into the animal population.
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of the cases to which he referred in his statement has occurred in the borough of Barnet? Will he join me in sending the good wishes of the House for a swift recovery to the individual concerned? Will he give reassurance to my constituents in Chipping Barnet that every possible effort is being made to trace those who have come into contact with the individual concerned? Will he ensure that Barnets primary care trust and Barnet council are fully briefed on the situation? At the moment, the council is anxious to do everything it can to help, but is finding it difficult to get information about what is happening from the Department of Health.
Alan Johnson: Yes to all those questions. If problems getting in touch with the Department of Health are being experienced in the hon. Ladys constituency, perhaps she will let me know the nature of those. Today has been difficult, because the cases were reported around the late morning and midday, and the gentleman concerned is now being treated in hospital. We will try to resolve any breakdown in communications.
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