Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


PANDEMIC INFLUENZA

CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION

1.1.  In July 2003 we published our Report Fighting Infection,[1] 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.[2] We also drew attention to the United Kingdom's Contingency Plan for responding to an outbreak of pandemic influenza, and commented as follows:

"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 beyond—indeed, 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;[3] 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 is underway.

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 response.

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.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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

2   Ibid., pages 20, 29. Back

3   The most recent update took place in October 2005: see http://www.dh.gov.uk/PolicyAndGuidance/EmergencyPlanning/PandemicFlu/fs/en.  Back


 
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