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7 May 2009 : Column 383

With swabs, however, there was a problem. We are talking about one of those issues where we can have the best framework in place and everything can be set at the national level, but then we find glitches in the system. The British Medical Association was very helpful to us on that, as were others, and we have resolved the problem, which was one of the reasons why Ian Dalton has been appointed. I do not like the title that some of the newspapers have given him, but we need to bring him down from the north-east to look at the role of co-ordinating all the different systems. That was something that we planned to do later in the national framework, but which we are doing immediately.

An important point that the hon. Gentleman raised is how we explain moving from containment to mitigation. That is partly why I mentioned the issue today—to get us thinking about it, as it will certainly be an important element of the public health messages that we give people. I think that the public will understand that, whereas we can currently give this precious resource, Tamiflu, when people do not have symptoms and may not even develop them, when the problem becomes much more widespread, the help will still be available. We would still use household prophylaxis and post-exposure prophylaxis for NHS workers, but we would need to ensure that we got that to people within 48 hours, which is the essential time scale, only if they were symptomatic. That is the best way to use that resource. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to explain the trigger points that move us from containment to mitigation, although I am sure that we will explore that much more in next week’s debate.

I am not going to go through every cut and thrust of our discussions with the Treasury, but it has an important job to do. The Treasury needs to be absolutely sure that we are spending taxpayers’ money on the right thing—that is, on something that will do what it is supposed to do and work properly—and it put us through a rigorous process. I think that Her Majesty’s Treasury would do that under any Government; it is right that it should do so. This was a huge expenditure, and I have no complaints about that—no complaints that I am willing to mention publicly, anyway.

On the issue of action at the European Union, it is not the case that the EU failed to agree. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South, was there taking a prominent role, and there was agreement after what I am told was a pretty amicable meeting. There was no move away from the importance of the EU acting within the World Health Organisation’s international co-ordination role, which it does very well—without removing the oversight that each member state must have for its own arrangements, of course. Reports of rows were greatly exaggerated.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and I thank him and his colleagues for the calm and collected manner in which they, the Department and the PCTs have responded to this crisis. Some commentators have suggested that action to search for vaccines will jeopardise the provision of the flu vaccine in the winter. Will my right hon. Friend reassure pensioners, in particular, that the traditional flu vaccine will still be available to them in the winter months, when it is needed?

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Alan Johnson: That is our objective. Our objective is to use our sleeping contracts to get the vaccine for this particular virus in place without damaging the capacity for producing the seasonal flu vaccine. It is a difficult situation out there, because countries all around the world—particularly America—are trying to get protection for their own people as well, and there is only so much capacity in the system. But that is our objective, and I hope to be able to reassure the House on that, or at least explain why I cannot reassure the House on it, as developments move on.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It is right that we should not be complacent about what we are facing, as this flu virus seems able to mutate very quickly. The Secretary of State will have read over the weekend about the appalling incident involving an out-of-hours GP who came into this country. The consequence, sadly, was two deaths. Has the right hon. Gentleman assessed the impact that a pandemic could have on this country? Clearly, we would not be able to access doctors from other countries in such an event, because the pandemic would affect their countries as well. Will he tell us what procedures are being put in place to ensure that proper medical staff will be available in this country to provide the vaccines to patients?

Alan Johnson: We have plans in place, including GPs returning to practise who have retired but who, of course, still have a wealth of knowledge. The important point about planning for the pandemic, however, is that people should go home and stay at home. The whole distribution system is based on people not clogging up their GP’s surgery and not calling out their GP to go to them. It is about ensuring that they have someone who we have been calling a flu friend—we might want to change that terminology—who can go and get the antivirals for them and take them to their home. We should never detract from that message. This is not about needing to produce loads more GPs because the GPs’ surgeries are being swamped. If that happens, we will have failed in our approach, but we are planning for the kind of complications that the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) mentioned. If we get to the stage at which more serious complications emerge, we have plans to put extra medical staff in place.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend’s Department on the manner in which it has dealt with this worrisome issue so far. I particularly want to thank the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), for giving me notice of a case that was reported in my constituency last Friday. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that those who might be more vulnerable to a second wave, such as pensioners, the very young and those whose medical condition would make the impact of the flu worse, are under consideration by the Department, and that plans will be brought forward in due course to deal with those particular problems?

Alan Johnson: I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. Of course, at the moment we do not know whom it will hit first. The evidence from Mexico is that the people who were dying were aged between 25 and
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50, which is extremely unusual. It is usually the older population and the very young who are the most vulnerable. Until we know the characteristics, we cannot decide that question, but we are certainly thinking ahead to the vaccination programme and about whom we should vaccinate first, because the vaccine is likely to come on line over a period of time. Once we know who the most vulnerable groups are—they could well be the elderly and the very young—we will ensure that they will be first in line to be vaccinated.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Secretary of State has said how important it is to deliver antivirals within the appropriate time window. There is public concern about the delays in the implementation of the flu helpline. Will he tell us what capacity that helpline will have, and what level of epidemic would be required to overwhelm it?

Alan Johnson: We are working on an interim system that would replicate the flu line. There would be one number to ring—although there is apparently a different system for people who are hard of hearing—and one website to contact. An algorithm would then spark off the collection of the antiviral from a distribution point. The system is predicated on perhaps 28 to 30 per cent. of the population having the virus at the height of a pandemic, and on their being able to order their antivirals and to receive them within a maximum of 48 hours, and preferably within 24 hours. That is the system that we are planning. It is not as though we are giving up on the previous scale of ambition and saying that we will have to scale down to something different. We are maintaining that scale of ambition, and we think that we are close to replicating what we would have had with the flu line—without some of the more sophisticated elements, it is true, but still with the same coverage and in the same time scale.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I reiterate the compliments paid to the Department by other Members on how this matter has been handled. I also thank the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), for notification of the case in my constituency yesterday, which seems to have been handled very quickly and effectively by the local PCT. My concern, which I am sure other Members share, is that unnecessary fears are perpetrated by reports of such a case. Will the Minister outline how press relations and publicity are being handled when a case is reported in a constituency such as mine?

Alan Johnson: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I think that my Department, and the NHS in particular, have done tremendously well, but this has been a cross-Government approach, and other Departments have been extremely helpful. I mentioned the noble Lord Carter in regard to telecommunications, and I should also mention the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), in relation to transport, as he is sitting beside me, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as well as others. This is a cross-Government effort.

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On the issue of how we publicise this matter, we are careful not to publicise information on a case until the parents and those close to the person have been informed. That is why there is sometimes a delay between people on the ground hearing about a case, as the information spreads through rumours, and our being able to announce it publicly. However, I think that this is the right thing to do. If we get to the next stage and this becomes more widespread, it will obviously be more difficult. At the moment, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South, is seeking to advise Members of Parliament on both sides of the House of any outbreak in their constituency, but that might be difficult to maintain as the system goes ahead. At the moment, however, we are trying to ensure that there is no publicity until the parents have been informed, and we try to inform the local constituency MP before the information is made public as well. We will do our very best to keep to that procedure for as long as possible.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I should like to ask the Secretary of State about the importance of those making public statements sticking to a clear consensus expert view. One hon. Member has said on her blog, in relation to schools and nurseries closing, that

She goes on to suggest that children will be better off in the long run if they catch the virus now. She does say:

Apart from the obvious problem of the threat to the immuno-compromised and the frail of the virus becoming widespread, there is also a danger of viral reassortment within the human population if it goes wide. Will the Secretary of State give his view on whether it is wise to put out public statements such as that one?

Alan Johnson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that matter; I did see it. I will give not my view, but that of the experts, including the chief medical officer—it is that such advice is totally irresponsible. We do not yet know enough about this virus; it is novel and we do not know its characteristics or how it mutates. It would be utter madness to tell people that their best bet is to get this virus and build up some immunity. Immunity from what? If it mutates, that will be an immunity from a previous phase. I have discussed this idea—it seems to be a piece of cracker-barrel philosophy that is going around—with all the clinicians and they say, without any hesitation, that it is totally irresponsible. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to put that on the record.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I repeat the congratulations to the Department on its handling of this situation. I apologise in advance for asking a slightly obscure question, but I understand that the vaccine that is being worked on involves the use of eggshells, as does the current flu vaccine. That means that it is not suitable for people who are allergic to eggs. Some people are so allergic to eggs that they cannot even touch the outside of the shell without breaking out in a reaction.
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Is there any way of getting around this problem so that we can develop a flu vaccine that is suitable for everybody?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend has gone well past the limits of my knowledge on these issues. She is quite right that eggs are used to grow the vaccine— [Interruption.] “Eggs are eggs” as has been said. I have not heard the issue concerning people who are allergic to eggs; I will look into it and perhaps write to her separately.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It appears that this particular virus at this particular time is producing relatively mild symptoms, but the Secretary of State is right to say that it could easily mutate. What we do not know is where and when it might mutate. I am sure that the WHO has a worldwide observatory for the influenza virus and that it takes samples continuously to try to identify any new variety that might emerge. In less developed countries, however, it probably does not have facilities for taking the samples, getting them to the laboratory and carrying out the tests. Will the UK put more resources into that vital work, because identifying any new mutation and getting a vaccine ready for it will be absolutely essential to containing what could become a much more serious disease?

Alan Johnson: Yes, the WHO has the necessary focus on this. One of the first statements made by Margaret Chan was that the WHO’s major role was ensuring that once the vaccine was produced, we could get it to countries that do not have the resources that we have. That will be an important element of what happens. On the general point about the vaccine, both in this country and in America, GlaxoSmithKline and Baxter are working very hard. They have already identified a strain here,
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and we are well on the way to getting the vaccine, but as the hon. Gentleman and all Members know, getting it through the manufacturing stage and getting it delivered involves months rather than weeks. The vaccine will not come quickly, but when it becomes available, the WHO has plans in place to ensure that it is distributed around the world. There is nothing worse for developed countries than to resolve this pandemic among themselves, only to find that it is still prevalent elsewhere—and therefore still an international threat.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his stewardship of this matter. I hesitated before getting up to speak, but one thing troubles me—patient confidentiality, which it seems to me has been breached. Once the storm broke, people had their photographs put in the newspapers. Vulnerable people facing a time of great crisis were harassed by journalists to produce photos, or their loved ones were asked, and so forth. Such people need some protection, and surely NHS staff need to be reminded of the law under the Data Protection Act 1998. Will the Department take these matters up with the Press Complaints Commission and with editors to ask for some restraint, as it is grossly unfair and deeply harrowing for people to have their medical conditions put on to the front pages of newspapers?

Alan Johnson: On the whole, as I said in my statement, media coverage has been responsible, but I agree that some individual cases are worrying. I have heard about instances in Dulwich, for example, of a stigma being attached to children who have this illness, leading to problems with bullying. That is very worrying. Parents have contacted us about the issue. I will try to ensure that the press plays its role in dealing with this problem and that the responsibility that it has shown in general at the macro-level is repeated at the micro-level.

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Point of Order

1.55 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the umpteenth time today, we have seen contempt shown for Mr. Speaker and the occupants the Chair by the Government, who have defied Mr. Speaker’s repeated requests that statements should be made to this House first, before they are made to the world outside. The SATs statement was rehearsed on the radio this morning and the written statement to the House on DNA was all over the newspapers and in the media late last night. What is the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of Mr. Speaker making rulings unless they can be enforced?

May I make a modest suggestion to Mr. Speaker: if, in future, there are Ministers—I am pleased to see the Home Secretary in her place on the Front Bench—who defy Mr. Speaker’s rulings, they should be arrested and have their DNA taken from them, and that that DNA sample should be destroyed only when we have received a proper undertaking and public apology from the Minister responsible?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I say to the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Speaker does indeed feel very strongly that, before statements to this House are disclosed or discussed elsewhere, they should be made to this House. I am sure that Mr. Speaker will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s points, but as to whether he will follow up the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions, I cannot be quite so certain.

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Intelligence and Security Committee

Motion made, and Question proposed,

1.57 pm

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) (Lab): I have had the privilege of chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee since October last year and this is the first opportunity I have had to talk about the work of the Committee before the House. I believe that this is the first time that such a debate has been opened by the Committee Chairman.

I have been asked by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to offer his apologies for being unable to attend this debate. He is representing the Prime Minister at the Eastern Partnership summit in Prague. While we wish the Foreign Secretary well at that conference, I am sure that all present are delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary participating in today’s debate.

On behalf of the Committee, I wish to put on record our thanks to my predecessors: my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who was Chairman until January 2008 and my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), who was Chairman until October 2008. I am grateful to them for their excellent leadership.

In the period covered by the annual report, the Committee held 26 formal meetings and 25 other meetings—51 in total—and undertook a number of visits. Its members attended the vast majority of those meetings—well over 90 per cent.—so I want to thank them for their hard work and the constructive approach they brought to the Committee’s work. I have certainly never served on any other Committee where attendance has been so high or its members have been so expert—an issue to which I shall return.

The Intelligence and Security Committee has a statutory remit to examine the administration, policy and finance of the UK’s security and intelligence agencies. We report on these annually to the Prime Minister and meet him to discuss the details of the report. The report covers the period from December 2007 to November 2008. That is the period that we are looking at today.

Our most time-consuming task during that period was the completion of our review of the intelligence on the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. That was the subject of a separate, detailed report, which was sent to the Prime Minister in July 2008. It could not be published then for legal reasons. A trial going on at the time has now concluded, and reporting restrictions have been lifted. To reflect recent developments, the Committee has updated the report—not in a rewrite, as some have suggested, but in a separate, additional annexe. We sent that update to the Prime Minister yesterday, and I am informed that he will publish both the report and update on Tuesday 19 May. I will not comment further on the report during this debate.

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