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20 July 2009 : Column 593

Andy Burnham: I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. The Department has been well served by a number of Ministers, because-as my right hon. Friend will know in his capacity as Chair of the Health Committee-it has planned for this eventuality for a considerable time.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that everyone-including Members of Parliament and any representative of the media who speaks on a public platform-has a responsibility to deal with this in a calm and measured way following the advice that has been issued. Any unnecessary concern out there could put extra pressure on the NHS front line, and I do not think that anyone would want that. We will rise to the challenge. The NHS has always been a wonderfully resilient organisation, and it will deal with this issue, but let us not make things more difficult for the valuable staff who are in front-line positions.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I, too, wish to express my condolences to the families of those who have died from swine flu.

What discussions have taken place about the contribution that the Treasury will make to dealing with the swine flu pandemic, and with the burden that will fall on the devolved Governments in the United Kingdom? Does he agree that, regardless of the statistics on people who are presenting with swine flu symptoms, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland should offer the same service, given that we call this a national pandemic flu service?

Andy Burnham: I strongly agree with the hon. Lady's second point. We continue to have regular discussions with the four health Ministers, and Michael McGimpsey has been of great assistance in helping us to co-ordinate our response across the United Kingdom. All Ministers-in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England-agree that the right response is a UK-wide response, and that will continue.

We do not yet know the full cost of the pressure that the outbreak will place on services. We do not know the full cost of the vaccination programme, because we do not yet know how long the outbreak will last. As far as is possible, we must deal with that pressure within existing budgets and resources; but any extra requests for funding would be dealt with in the usual way, according to existing Treasury arrangements.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I am sure he agrees, however, that concern has grown over the definition of pregnant women and the under-fives as vulnerable groups. That is certainly the case in my constituency. Can he reassure my constituents that that vulnerability does not mean that they are more likely than not to contract swine flu? It is certain that in the case of pregnant women there will be no dangers to the unborn child, and it is certain that the treatment for the under-fives is entirely effective.

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend has made an important point. Some younger people have not encountered this kind of virus before, while some older people have. However, it is not the case that anyone is necessarily more at risk of developing the virus than others; it is a question of people's ability to withstand it after contracting
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it. That is an important distinction, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to clarify it.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about travelling, may I point out that the Secretary of State has said nothing about information at airports and ports? Is he issuing leaflets? What about the arrangements for incoming as well as outgoing passengers? What information will be provided, and will any health officers be available?

Andy Burnham: We have not introduced screening at United Kingdom airports, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point about information. I will follow it up, and check that good information is provided at ports of entry. I am grateful to him for bringing the issue to my attention.

The FCO website states:

That includes airports in China, although obviously practice differs elsewhere. In relation to China, the guidance states:

Obviously, we know about the situation with the young children, which emerged over the weekend. We will provide support to them as necessary, but it is for all countries to deal with the outbreak as they see fit.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): This global pandemic is affecting our country in our summer months, and it is anticipated that the situation may get worse as we work towards the winter months. Obviously, however, many countries in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the pandemic during their winter months. How closely are we monitoring the levels of infection in countries in the southern hemisphere, so that we can learn from the trends as we work towards our winter months?

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can assure him that the international figures are monitored. At the risk of sounding overly critical, I think that our surveillance systems are better than those in many other countries, so we must exercise some caution in directly comparing the figures from one country with the figures from another. However, we keep a close eye on those figures. Obviously, one of the things about this virus is that it is spreading here during the summer months, which people would not always expect.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): May I raise again the issue of constituents travelling overseas? Can the Secretary of State assure me that they will be able to contact the national pandemic hotline even if they are overseas, and that there will be some facility to direct them to where they should go, as language and other barriers might mean that they cannot access treatment when they need it?

Andy Burnham: I do not think that people can contact the service from overseas, but that is why I made an important distinction in my statement about people who are travelling. They should take all the necessary
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precautions, including purchasing over-the-counter medications, heeding the advice on the Foreign Office website and considering whether they should also have, if they are travelling within the European Union, a European Union health insurance card. The hon. Lady has raised an important point. I will see whether there is more we can do to provide reassurance. I would not want us today, when we are launching a new service for Britain, to be distracted by another issue, but if I can provide further reassurance or a better and more detailed answer in next 24 or 48 hours I will do that.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): During the school term, it was easy to decide which schools had to close because there were outbreaks among the children. Is the Secretary of State talking to local education authorities about what will happen in September when the children return, because some schools might not wish to reopen?

Andy Burnham: The decision will have to be taken locally according to advice from public health officials. It is always the responsibility of the head teacher and chair of governors, and it would be premature to suggest that there should be widespread school closures. The majority of schools in England have broken up for the summer or are about to do so. We hope that that will have a beneficial impact on the spread of the virus, although we cannot be sure about that. We keep all these matters under discussion, and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), regularly attends our Cobra meetings. We will update advice to schools if and when that is appropriate.

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker-[Hon. Members: "Mr. Speaker."] I do apologise, Mr. Speaker, for whatever I said. Despite the Secretary of State's welcome assurances about keeping hon. Members in touch, does he agree that it is incomprehensible and further undermines the reputation of this House that, in the face of this and other crises, we break up tomorrow until 12 October, without any inkling of a recall to scrutinise the Government's actions?

Andy Burnham: I think that the arrangements I have put in place, and which I have explained in my statement today, will give hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially the Front-Bench teams, access to the information they need. We will issue a local hotline number, which will not be in the public domain, so that Members of Parliament can pursue any concerns over the summer months. It is very important that everybody keeps this virus in perspective. Parliament needs to keep it in perspective too, and if the situation changes I am sure that there will be conversations through the usual channels, but at this stage it is business as usual. It is important, however, that we have in place systems to make sure that people are properly updated over the summer months.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I think the Secretary of State missed the point made by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and others
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about people travelling abroad. A constituent of mine who was on holiday in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt could not leave the country and was incarcerated-I intend no disrespect-in an Egyptian national health service hospital, where he could not get any consular advice. Over the next few weeks, this scenario-involving, perhaps, people who, rightly or wrongly, have not arranged sufficient travel insurance-is likely to escalate enormously, putting enormous strain on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There need to be amber lights flashing to the FCO and the travel and insurance industries to make sure that a potentially large number of people are not incarcerated outside the European Union in grotty hospitals.

Andy Burnham: May I say three things to my hon. Friend? First, before they travel people should check the arrangements for dealing with swine flu in each country. Secondly, they should have appropriate insurance in place, should that be necessary. Thirdly, of course we will ensure with colleagues in the Foreign Office that there is appropriate consular advice and support for anybody who finds themselves in a difficult position. Those three things are absolutely vital-and for people travelling within Europe, the European health insurance card is, of course, a crucial document, and nobody should go on holiday without one.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The Secretary of State said he envisaged receiving supplies of the vaccinations by August and that he was prioritising vulnerable groups and vital NHS front-line staff. I am the husband of a wife who is seven months pregnant and due in September, so will he tell me whether he is considering putting women who are in the later stages of pregnancy in any of those vulnerable groups? What steps is he putting in place for hospital maternity units, because the babies of women who have recently given birth are particularly vulnerable?

Andy Burnham: On the latter point, hospitals have, of course, sophisticated systems for ensuring the safety of the ward environment. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I can assure him that pregnant women are within the priority groups of those considered at higher risk. SAGE has given Ministers the conclusions on those groups. We have had our first discussion of them, but I can confirm that women in pregnancy are included. As and when appropriate-and not before too long, I hope-we will make public who is in those groups. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) asked that we do that, and I have no problem with it. We want at all stages to be open about the advice that we are receiving, but we must look at the vaccination programme alongside the operational requirements to ensure that health care staff and social care staff are vaccinated. These are the issues, alongside the delivery schedule for the vaccine, that we are currently balancing.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Does the research confirm whether people can get swine flu twice and whether antivirals and Tamiflu injections are of any benefit in preventing a second bout of swine flu? What work is being done to ensure that a vaccination for swine flu does not counter the normal vaccinations that are given to so many people in this country for winter flu, and on whether those two injections have any effect on each other?

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Andy Burnham rose-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) slipped in three questions, but I feel sure that the Secretary of State will furnish us with just one answer.

Andy Burnham: Perhaps I will write to the hon. Gentleman to cover all those issues, but if he was asking whether people can get the vaccine or antivirals twice, I can say that the national pandemic flu service has an authorisation code that is meant to stop precisely that problem, so that the antivirals can go around to everybody.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): May I take the Secretary of State back to a statistic he gave us earlier orally but which does not seem to appear in the written version of his statement? I think he said that there are currently 652 people in hospital with swine flu, of whom 53 are in critical care. That seems like a rather high proportion. How does that compare with other, more conventional forms of influenza, and does it mean that we are not getting people to hospital fast enough?

Andy Burnham: No, I do not think that it means that at all. We can give the hon. Gentleman figures on the hospitalisation rate if he would find them useful. It is important for me to say that we are at the early stage of a new virus, and although we want to give the House the figures as openly as possible as we receive them, this is a developing situation and I do not believe that he should read too much into them at this stage. We have given him the figures, they are being updated every week and people can make their own judgments on them.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): At the previous statement on swine flu, the Minister had no answer to the question about what is being done about people getting cross-infected on a plane flying into this country. We have this strange situation where the Government seem to have done nothing to discourage people from flying into the country, while airlines are turning people away and preventing them from flying out of it with swine flu. What is the Government's rationale for that? What threshold would there be before they did something to discourage people from flying in and infecting people on the plane?

Andy Burnham: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should stop incoming flights-perhaps he does. From the beginning, the advice from the World Health Organisation was that, given what we knew about this virus, it would not be justifiable to place restrictions on international travel. That was the clear position at the start and I have not seen any WHO advice to change it. Obviously we pay close attention to what the WHO says at all times.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): There has been a lot of talk about the FCO website and tourism abroad, but I am interested in what is happening to tourism in Britain. We are very much open for business, yet we see headlines such as today's "Holidaymakers face travel ban as swine flu sweeps country". What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the
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tourism Minister to ensure that such headlines are placed in context and that the message goes out that Britain is very much open for business?

Andy Burnham: I think that I just gave that message in answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming). Britain is very much open for business and, as I say, it is business as usual for the vast majority of people. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a representative who attends the Cobra civil contingencies committee, and I am sure that in terms of business continuity we will continue to listen carefully to what he or she says. As I mentioned in my statement, we are developing strong networks for business, in order to give it the advice that it needs. That is being led by the Cabinet Office and it will be useful to tourism, as well as to other businesses.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I am wearing my all-party group on diabetes hat here. Will all diabetics have access to the vaccine, or will a distinction be drawn between people with diabetes that is controlled by diet and exercise and other people with diabetes?

Andy Burnham: At this stage, I do not want to give all the information about the vaccination programme piece by piece. I gave an answer to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) because there has been a lot of focus of women in pregnancy and giving further information on that is justified. We will say more in due course. Obviously we are purchasing enough vaccine to vaccinate the whole country, although not all that vaccine will arrive in this calendar year. Thus, we are putting forward a programme of priority vaccination for the autumn, about which we will say more in due course.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): This morning, I rang a travel insurance medical hotline to seek advice about swine flu, but before I got through to someone I heard a pre-recorded message saying, "We can give you no advice about swine flu." What advice is the Secretary of State giving the travel insurance industry? If I go abroad with a slight temperature would I invalidate my travel insurance were I to get swine flu?

Andy Burnham: That is a matter for the insurers; it is not necessarily a matter for me. I have said clearly throughout this statement that people should carefully check the FCO website and other advice before they travel, and they should not travel if they have symptoms. That advice is clear and if the hon. Gentleman has a query about his insurance policy, he should raise it with his insurer.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): The Secretary of State is correct to say that swine flu is important and serious, but we must keep a sense of perspective, because the truth is that over the next six to 12 months many more of our constituents will develop cancer and heart disease and die from those illnesses. Will he join me in urging the media to report the illness of swine flu responsibly, thereby avoiding mass hysteria?

Andy Burnham: It is important to acknowledge-as the hon. Gentleman did-that accurate, balanced and calm reporting of this virus is necessary. If that tone is
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not struck, it puts pressure on the NHS and limits its ability to cope with the daily pressures, which continue, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. The launch of the national pandemic flu service will take pressure off the health service by creating an alternative route for access to medication, and that will go a long way to helping to relieve pressure on the front line. We all have a responsibility to face up to the challenges as they come up, to deal with them as best we can, and to explain them as calmly and concisely as we can, which will help the whole country get through this challenge.

In conclusion, may I say that the NHS will get through this challenge, because it is wonderfully resilient? It has faced many challenges before and will face this one in the same way.

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