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14 May 2009 : Column 1079

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I shall refer to Scotland in my speech. Scotland was very much the focus at the start of this outbreak, as the first two confirmed cases in the UK were in Scotland. I join other Members in expressing appreciation to NHS staff for acting rapidly and wisely in admitting the couple concerned to Monklands hospital and isolating them there. That helped to protect those people—although, fortunately, their symptoms were not serious—and it also reassured the public that the matter was being taken seriously. It helped us across the UK to study that case and understand better what had happened and how it had happened, and issues such as contacts.

It is worth noting in passing that Monklands hospital had previously been earmarked for closure, and one of the many good decisions of the current Scottish Government was to keep it open. I particularly wish to mention the way in which the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, Nicola Sturgeon, has been leading in the Scottish Government on this matter.

Reference has been made to the booklet that has been widely distributed. One of the advantages of having two houses is that one gets two leaflets. As far as I can tell, the one distributed to my Glasgow flat some time ago is exactly the same as the one that I received last night in Lambeth—except that the Scottish paper seems to be of a slightly higher quality. This raises the question of whether we have a guarantee that all these good-quality leaflets have been distributed. I only got mine in Lambeth last night, and as that seems a little late I wonder whether everybody else has got one. I did think that they were sensitively produced, given that they detail what the UK Governments—rather than just the UK Government—have done; again, full marks to the NHS and the Department of Health.

I understand that, as of this morning, Scotland has five definite cases—

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Dawn Primarolo): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge in this House that we have a national health service that goes across the whole of the UK, and that the people in it are working in unison to protect all our citizens. I do not think that we should imply or make any asides to suggest that that is not happening.

John Mason: I thank the Minister for her intervention, and I agree with her. Indeed, the main point of my remarks is about the good relationship on this issue between the Governments of Scotland and the UK. Our respective countries are working extremely well on this matter, and I hope that that can be extended to other matters. We are all—those on the Government side and ourselves— committed to the NHS, although there are some differences in how we view the way ahead for it. For example, I believe that the approach of “no private GP practices” in Scotland is fundamental to the future of the NHS, whereas a different view has been taken in England.

I understand that further cases are being investigated in Greenock, which has led to the closure of a primary school and a nursery there. As I said, I wish to make my main remarks about the good relationship between Scotland and the UK on this matter. When a previous statement was made, the right hon. Member for Airdrie
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and Shotts (John Reid) asked about the relationship between Ministers in the two Governments and I asked about the relationship between the officials. We were both given very positive answers, and all that I have become aware of since then shows that that continues to be the case. For example, I understand that antibiotics are being procured by the Department of Health for the whole of the UK, and that as Scotland has a stockpile of some 9 million face masks, which is probably more than it needs at the moment, it has offered 1.45 million of those to England to help its supplies.

I reckon that this is one of the many situations in which the Scottish and UK Governments seem to be working well together, and that is the way we want things to be. We do not want constant bickering, people picking fights or people putting party before country. The more responsibility the Scottish Parliament is given and the less dependent we are financially on Westminster handouts, the more likely it is that our two countries can have a mature and grown-up relationship. Of course England is the larger country and it is likely to have more experts on many subjects, be it health or whatever, but that does not prevent us from respecting each other as neighbours and working together on issues such as swine flu, which clearly is no respecter of international boundaries. Perhaps one of the good things that can come out of this episode is a good and strong relationship between our countries’ respective health services. I very much hope that other Departments in the London Government will follow the lead of the Secretary of State for Health.

One area in which England has been ahead of Scotland is in closing schools when there is an outbreak. I understand that the experience is that very early precautionary closure, such as occurred in Paignton, has been instrumental in disrupting the further spread of the virus. The topic has already been raised, and perhaps the Minister could confirm whether the advice continues to be that schools should be closed for seven days, whether there is some other optimum time, or whether we have to examine each case individually.

I also understand that Health Ministers are working together to secure and purchase early supplies of vaccine. That sounds encouraging, and I hope that we will be kept updated when negotiations with manufacturers are concluded. As we are talking about vaccines, I understand that our Cabinet Secretary this morning pointed out that if a pandemic is declared, global demand for a vaccine will outstrip the capacity to supply it. That point has also been made in this debate. There may be a danger in countries such as the UK and US squabbling over vaccines, but perhaps the more serious danger is that poorer countries will be left without adequate supplies. Maybe if we ourselves struggle with a shortage of resources to combat flu, it will test our resolve to help countries less fortunate than ourselves. I would be grateful for reassurance on that point from the Minister.

Finally, we have seen various reactions to this outbreak. The very word “pandemic” can be a problem. It sounds very dramatic and suggests that the outbreak is both widespread and serious. However, I understand it to mean that a disease is widespread, but is not necessarily serious. That understanding is gradually spreading. We could have what is technically a pandemic that is not serious in its effect.

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There is a balance to be struck between encouraging the public to be aware and careful, but not panicking. I accept that it is difficult for the WHO, and indeed all Governments, to get the balance right. The phrase “crying wolf” comes to mind, and the danger is that if something more serious comes along in a year or two, we will again call it a pandemic, but by that time no one will take us seriously. It has been suggested that it is inevitable that for every pandemic there are likely to be a dozen false alarms; I wonder whether the Minister agrees.

Perhaps one of the good results of the MPs’ expenses debacle being all over the media is that it has reduced the media hype over swine flu. However, as has been said, it is better to be a little over-prepared than a little under-prepared. I liked the statement on the website of Steven Novella:

I support the Government’s action, and especially the way in which they have worked with the Scottish Government.

3.37 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): This is a subject on which I do not normally speak, but I have listened to the debate and, for once and perhaps uncharacteristically, I think that much of what the Government are doing is very good. I especially like the swine flu information leaflet, which explains the risks carefully and what people should do if they have returned from Mexico or have any fears.

Like all hon. Members, I treat the safety of my constituents as paramount. I am delighted by what I have heard today about the steps the Government are taking and the work that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has done to ensure that the Government do not neglect any area. They—and especially my colleagues on the Front Bench—are to be congratulated on doing a marvellous job on this subject. However, there is one little aspect of the debate to which I seek to draw attention, and that is the “swine” bit. I object to that name for this disease.

My constituency contains pig farmers, who are deeply worried that giving that name to this flu will have an impact on their business. I have looked up why it is called swine flu and I shall cite the definition in a moment. The concern is that the market for pig products will be affected because of public fear. That is especially unfortunate at a time when the industry faces enormous pressures. We need to ensure that this risk to our people from the current outbreak is not another nail in the pig industry’s coffin. We have an opportunity to demonstrate that joined-up government is not just something that we talk about, but something that can be delivered so that the people are safe.

In the UK, there are 470,000 breeding sows producing just over 9 million pigs a year. England accounts for 82 per cent. of the UK’s breeding pigs, Scotland for 4 per cent. and Wales for less than 1 per cent. About 92 per cent. of pigs are kept on modern commercial
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farms, of which there are about 1,400, and the rest on about 10,000 smallholdings. These pigs are well kept and not the dirty creatures that stories would make out. This is a modern and important industry, which is under pressure from red tape and bureaucracy, the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in 2001 and 2007, and the loss of non-EU markets owing to exotic diseases. Like most industries, the pig industry is seeing increases in production costs, feed costs and fuel costs.

The average retail prices of pork and pork products have increased by 37 per cent. in a year—that is about £1.79 a kilogram—but the average price paid to farmers has increased by just 27p per kilogram. Estimates from the British Pig Executive, BPEX, show that in 2007 farmers are paid about £1.10 per kilogram even though it cost them £1.44 to produce. That led to the “Pigs are worth it!” campaign, which I thought was extremely helpful and successful. We are always, of course, subject to competition from cheaper imports.

Since 1997, the size of the English pig herd has reduced by 40 per cent. Despite the negative press for pigs and the pig industry, there remains some uncertainty about whether pigs in Mexico are the cause of this outbreak. The advice posted on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website states:

and that more information will be available following the completion of the OIE-Food and Agriculture Organisation mission to Mexico. I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity in her closing comments to provide us with an update on this mission and when it is likely to publish its findings.

I also wonder whether the Minister agrees that newspaper articles and internet blogs with headlines such as “Swine flu: British pig industry leaders ‘reckless and selfish’”, as put out by Animal Aid, and “Swine flu: is intensive pig farming to blame?”, as put out by a Member of the European Parliament, Caroline Lucas, in The Guardian, are not only potentially misleading to the public but extremely damaging to the pig industry? Farmers in this country take biosecurity seriously and take action to keep their animals safe from disease. They have the highest standards in the world. The Government could help to support pig farmers by reassuring the pig industry that they will send out positive messages about British pork. The current outbreak cannot be transmitted by eating pork products, according to the WHO and the Food Standards Agency.

The WHO has decided to back away from labelling this outbreak “swine flu” and instead refers to it as H1N1. That is proper and clear. The virus has elements of swine, avian and human varieties and it is yet to be determined whether pigs have caused the outbreak or not. Joseph Domenech, the chief veterinary officer in the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, has said:

How much of that does the Minister agree with?

In view of the potential damage to the pig industry that could be associated with negative perceptions of linking pigs to the outbreak, will the Minister consider referring to the flu by some other term, including in the information guide sent out to the public? Other names could include Mexican flu or H1N1, which is what I would prefer.

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There can be a risk to pigs from humans. In Canada, a farm worker reportedly infected a herd of pigs with swine flu. In Afghanistan, the only pig has been quarantined. The contingency plan for exotic animal diseases published by DEFRA and last updated in December 2008 appears to make no mention of any variety of swine flu, despite there being cases of other swine-related influenza strains previously in the UK. Will modifications be made to the plan to cover further outbreaks, especially as the virus spreads to pigs? Will antivirals be available for workers on pig farms? Will a vaccine be developed for pigs? That is a question that I do not expect the Minister to answer today, but it is one that I shall leave for DEFRA. Will there be a mass cull of pigs, as happened in Egypt?

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that the Government’s

Will the Minister reassure us that that will be kept under review, and that action will be taken to reduce the risks further?

Air travel is one way for influenza strains to spread quickly across the globe. Last year, UK airports handled about 235 million passengers. What efforts have been made to put together a list of countries where the risk of infection is higher? Does the Minister know how many carriers of this strain might be coming into the country?

Current cases in the UK appear to be linked to those who have travelled to Mexico or had contact with people from north America. The first known case of infection here, on 26 April, involved Mr. and Mrs. Askham, who had been to Cancun on their honeymoon. It was reported that the authorities had no plans to trace the other passengers on the flight, as they were not classified as “close contacts”. However, a 12-year-old girl from Downend in south Gloucestershire was on the same flight as Mr. and Mrs. Askham, and she was diagnosed on 1 May.

With regard to those who have travelled to countries where there are cases of this influenza strain and who have been infected by it, will the Minister reassure the House that efforts will be made to trace people who travelled with them? In that way, they can be tested and, if necessary, treated. We need to know how the virus got into this country, what risk it poses to the population, and what the Government are doing about it.

A final word about the link to pigs: scientists have suggested that all RNA segments of the 2009 swine flu—A/H1N1—viral genome are of swine origin, and they have stated that

Given that, it must be fair not to refer to the virus as “swine flu”, “pig flu” or “Mexican flu”, but rather to stick to the correct term, which is H1N1. Our pig industry would be grateful for that.

I am grateful to the Government for the steps that they are taking to protect people from the illness. I hope that the predicted level 6 pandemic does not arrive, but the Secretary of State’s opening remarks were deeply worrying in that regard, as he made it clear that the disease is considerably more serious than had been thought. However, let us avoid collateral damage in our food-producing sector as well.

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I am grateful to the House for suffering me to talk about the pig industry. I hope that the Minister will continue to make every effort to protect my constituents.

3.48 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). In his opening comments, he said he did not know much about this subject, but he showed that he is a great champion of the countryside, and of farmers in particular.

I want to ask some important questions arising from recent discussions with my local primary care trust, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them in her closing remarks. The questions are important, as swine flu has arrived in Berkshire: one case was reported in Slough and there is also a suspected case in Wokingham.

I was rather surprised to hear a so-called expert argue on the radio that we should allow the current milder form of the virus to spread widely through the population, as that would allow people to build up resistance to the more virulent strain that may arrive in the autumn. Will the Minister comment on that view? Does she believe it is a suitable response, and what are her own expert advisers telling her?

As I said, I have had discussions with my local PCT and have reviewed its pandemic plan, which I have with me this afternoon. I would like to congratulate the staff of the PCT on putting together a comprehensive and very welcome plan, but I am concerned about several issues.

First, I am not convinced that the out-of-hours GP service will be robust enough to handle the scale of a pandemic. Many areas of the country, and parts of Berkshire, have their challenges and problems with the out-of-hours service. I just hope that my local PCT will re-check the robustness of local out-of-hours GP services to ensure that those services can cope with all the circumstances that might arise. If they cannot, what contingency plans will the PCT have in place?

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have personal experience of the failures of out-of-hours services. When my daughter was ill on a Sunday in Herefordshire, there was no GP available for anybody in Ledbury, where we live, despite its having two GP surgeries, so we had to travel all the way to Hereford, where there was a Primecare centre, bang next door to an accident and emergency department. It totally defeats the point of having doctors spread through the community if people all end up in the county hospital at the same time. The Government have spent so much money on doctors and the health service, so I do not know why care does not reach the people who need it the most. That is perplexing. I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees.

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The out-of-hours service is particularly fragmented in countryside areas such as the one he represents. I think we would find general agreement across the House that there are significant problems.

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