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Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, early reports from the Far East suggested that the agent responsible for the syndrome might be a paramyxovirus but, as the noble Baroness said, the most recent research suggests that it is a coronavirus. From the research carried out to date, does the Minister have any information as to whether the agent is responsive or sensitive to anti-viral agents and whether there is any prospect in the foreseeable future of producing an effective vaccine?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, not being a microbiologist, I do not know much about the virus itself, but I know that we have only five probable cases in the country. Three have recovered and gone home; two are in hospital in a stable condition. Those patients have been treated empirically with antibiotics and anti-viral agents; they are also being supportively nursed, as noble Lords would expect, to protect their general recovery. We shall have to wait until we are a little further down the road of research for information about a potential vaccine.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that of 112 suspected cases in Taiwan, 17 have been definitely confirmed as suffering from SARS? Taking up the point about the World Health Organisation, what does my noble friend have to say about the fact that Taiwan, having notified the WHO about the outbreak on 14th March, has now heard that the WHO has absolutely declined to offer any assistance to Taiwan because of possible objections from the People's Republic of China? As a consequence, one young boy who entered Taiwan from Vietnam had to be flown to the United States for treatment. Does not my noble friend think that an extraordinary way in which to tackle a serious disease?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, it is probably outside my brief to comment on international diplomacy and relations between China and Taiwan, but what I would say is that the Foreign Office has advised that all travellers to Taiwan should be aware of the current situation as cases of SARS continue to increase, of the fact that they may be screened prior to air travel, and of the symptoms of SARS. We are doing all we can to keep people alert and well-informed.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, what advice is given to travellers to other places, such as the United States, where there have also been incidences of the virus, about steps they can take to protect themselves from transmission?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, so far as I am aware, we have not issued any such advice to travellers to the US. We have issued advice to travellers to Toronto in Canada where there has been a specific and traceable outbreak.

Earl Howe: My Lords, if a suspected carrier of SARS arrives in the UK, is it not essential for the

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authorities to be able to quarantine that person? Will the Government take powers under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to make SARS officially notifiable, so that it would be possible to detain those suspected of having SARS? If they do not intend to do so, why not?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, as I have explained, the normal health procedures are in place and are working well to identify people who are travelling on aircraft. The pilot radios ahead and all necessary steps are taken. We are not yet at the stage where quarantine is necessary. Our public health surveillance systems are working well—as I said, we have had only five probable cases—and we will be monitoring the situation. We will clearly take appropriate action, should that be necessary.

Lord Chan: My Lords—

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we are now in the 24th minute. In fairness to the last questioner, we should move on.

Secondary Schools: Examinations

11.24 a.m.

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that the arrangements for this year's post-16 examinations in secondary schools are satisfactory.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Mike Tomlinson's recommendations to secure the 2003 examinations have been implemented in full by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the awarding bodies. We are making an additional £6 million available to QCA to help ensure that the 2003 examinations are delivered accurately and effectively, with particular attention paid to ensuring that there are sufficient examiners. The Examinations Task Force, chaired by the QCA with representatives from the awarding bodies and the teaching profession, will oversee delivery of the examinations.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but has he read the letter in The Times this Tuesday from a mother, stating that her son will on 23rd May, in the morning, be sitting two English AS-level papers, beginning at 9.15, followed in the afternoon by three geography papers, the last of which begins at 4.45? That is five examinations in one day. Does the Minister think it fair to expect anyone to have to experience such a pressurised timetable and then perform to the best of his or her ability?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness has identified a case that should cause concern. It is clearly

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too demanding on a student to face so many examinations in one day. I am sure that arrangements can and will be made to change that position.

Let us recognise the nature of the problem. Increasing numbers of students are putting themselves forward for greater numbers of A-levels. Whereas in the past, taking two or three used to be regarded as the norm, four or even five may now be taken. That gives rise to acute problems in timetabling examinations, but the noble Baroness has a point.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords—

Baroness Blatch: My Lords—

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am bound to say that it was a Conservative Question. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will take her turn after the Liberal Democrats.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. Will the Minister tell the House where the Government's thinking on Curriculum 2000 is going? Are they still wedded to the AS/A2 A-level split, or are they considering development of the English baccalaureate, which is strongly supported by some academics at the Institute of Education in London because of the enormous pressure that A-level examinations place on 16 to 18 year-olds, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, one of Mike Tomlinson's recommendations was that the whole question of examinations from 14 to 19 should be considered. That review is taking place and is taking into account the point made by the noble Baroness. The international baccalaureate finds favour in some circles. We should not underestimate the number of schools in this country that already pursue courses in the IB—it is a considerable number.

However, to make such a significant change, there would have to be agreement across the whole education profession and in education thinking. In any case, it would take considerable time. But the noble Baroness is right; considerable thought is being given to those issues, not least because it is widely recognised that the examination demands that we make on students from 14 through to 19 are creating significant problems that may not be entirely conducive to the best form of education.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Minister is astonishingly sanguine about both the examination arrangements for this year and the pressure on young people. I do not think that the lady to whom reference has been made will be very comforted about the pressures on her son.

Teachers are being asked by the QCA to take time off during the summer term to mark examination papers. Does the Minister agree with John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association, who said:

    "the . . . problem is over-examination of school students. Until they"—

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that is, the Government, do something about it, they will simply,

    "lurch from crisis to crisis"?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I hope that I was not being over-sanguine. I reflected the review carried out by Mike Tomlinson, with his clear recommendations on how we can secure the position for this year. He is satisfied that we are making progress. We have had something of a trial run—of course, a minor one—with the January examinations. But that was regarded as a successful development in the new examinations structure. We are confident about that. We are not sanguine; we recognise the problems. I appreciate the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, about timetables. Of course, what the noble Baroness asks for is desirable. We need to reduce the number of demands on students in examinations. But nobody suggests that that can be done at the flick of a switch.


11.30 a.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, with the leave of the House, at a convenient moment after 1 p.m. my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean will repeat a Statement on Iraq. Then, with the leave of the House, at a convenient moment after 4 p.m. my noble friend Lady Amos will repeat a Statement on the humanitarian situation and rehabilitation in Iraq.

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