CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
1.1. In July 2003 we published our Report Fighting
Infection, in which
we asked which infectious diseases posed the biggest threat to
the United Kingdom in the foreseeable future. We also analysed
the main problems encountered in the surveillance, treatment and
prevention of human infectious disease in this country. We examined
the advances in surveillance, diagnostic and vaccine technologies
that might benefit the United Kingdom, and made recommendations
on policy interventions that would assist in preventing outbreaks
of infectious disease in future.
1.2. The report drew upon influenza more than
once to illustrate some of the threats to the health of the population
and drew attention to both strengths and weaknesses in the United
Kingdom's preparedness for major epidemics or pandemics. We highlighted,
for example, the potential strain on vaccine manufacturing capacity
and also some of the difficulties of surveillance.
We also drew attention to the United Kingdom's Contingency Plan
for responding to an outbreak of pandemic influenza, and commented
"There are some good examples of plans about
how to respond to infection outbreaks, such as the UK pandemic
influenza Plan. This describes the national response in the event
of a new influenza virus appearing which has the potential to
cause a world wide pandemic
The plan was prepared to facilitate
a prompt, effective national response. It describes a phased response
and defines the roles of the organisations which would be involved.
At the time of the appearance of H5N1 influenza in Hong Kong in
1997 the UK was one of the few countries to have such a plan in
place and it was widely seen as a model to follow." (Fighting
Infection, p. 21)
1.3. Since Fighting Infection H5N1 avian
influenza has continued to spread across south east Asia and beyondindeed,
as we started our inquiry in October 2005 the first cases in birds
in Europe were confirmed. Since 2003 over 60 people in south east
Asia, who have caught the disease from birds, are known to have
died. The threat of a human pandemic is if anything higher now
than in 2003.
1.4. We therefore considered it timely to carry
out a short inquiry into the threat of pandemic influenza, and
the Government's continuing preparations to meet this threat.
Our witnesses generally agreed that the United Kingdom remains
among the best prepared countries in the developed world, and
we see no reason to dissent from this view. The Pandemic Influenza
Contingency Plan has been regularly reviewed and updated;
advice has been issued to frontline healthcare workers; the Government
have ordered sufficient antiviral drugs to treat one quarter of
the population; work to expedite the manufacture of a vaccine
1.5. Nevertheless, while the United Kingdom may
be better prepared than most other countries, it is clear that
if a pandemic were to emerge this winter we, along with every
other country in the world, would face a grave crisis. In this
report we therefore make recommendations which we hope will assist
in focusing minds on the top priorities of prevention and rapid
1.6. We have also considered the contingency
plans that have been prepared against the possibility of a pandemic
reaching the United Kingdom. We have not had time to produce a
comprehensive report on this complex area, and are conscious that
there may be gaps in our analysis. We have not, for instance,
considered the particular problems that would affect closed communities
such as boarding schools, university halls of residence or prisons.
Nor have we looked in detail at preparedness in business and industry.
However, our recommendations draw attention to a number of key
areas in the Government's overarching Contingency Plan where more
work is urgently needed.
1.7. Contingency plans, by their nature, evolve
in response to events. We trust that the Government will review
their Contingency Plan in light of the recommendations in this
report, and give notice that we intend to return to this subject
in the near future to review the progress that has been made.
1.8. The membership of the Committee is set out
in Appendix 1, and our call for evidence in Appendix 3. We would
like to thank all those who submitted written and oral evidence,
who are listed in Appendix 2. We held an informal seminar on 11
October, at which we heard presentations from Dr Jeremy Farrar,
Professor Neil Ferguson and Sir John Skehel, and we wish to thank
them for providing us with such a clear introduction to the issues
raised in our inquiry.
1.9. Our Specialist Adviser for this inquiry
was Professor Julius Weinberg, Director of the Institute for Health
Sciences, City University, London, who was also the adviser on
our previous Report Fighting Infection. We are enormously
grateful to him for his assistance throughout the inquiry.
1 Fourth Report from the Science and Technology Committee,
Session 2002-03 (HL Paper 138). Back
Ibid., pages 20, 29. Back
The most recent update took place in October 2005: see http://www.dh.gov.uk/PolicyAndGuidance/EmergencyPlanning/PandemicFlu/fs/en.