HC Deb 02 June 1964 vol 695 cc925-32
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Noble)

With permission, I should like to make a statement to the House on the outbreak in Aberdeen of typhoid fever.

The number of patients at present in hospital is 249, of whom 241 are confirmed cases. This is, in fact, the most serious outbreak since 1937. The first indications of an outbreak appeared on 19th May, and the probable source of infection, in a supermarket in Aberdeen, was traced on 20th May. The speed with which the focal point of infection was established reflects great credit on the Medical Officer of Health of Aberdeen, Dr. MacQueen and his staff.

According to the information with which I have been furnished, the cause of this outbreak has not been finally established. There have been suggestions that the organism causing the epidemic was present in canned corned beef, and this cannot be ruled out. However, there is no foundation for the suggestion that the infection originated in canned corned beef from former Government stocks. No canned meat which investigation has shown could have been in the shop, could have come from these stocks.

Investigations made revealed that some 6 lb. cans of corned beef from a certain establishment—not from Government stocks—were in the shop at the material time. The establishment at which this corned beef was produced did not for a period of 15 months use chlorinated water in the cooling process. This could conceivably have been a source of infection. The Government are, therefore, advising that 6 lb. cans produced at this establishment during this period should be withdrawn from sale for the time being.

As an additional protection, we are also advising that corned beef in 6 lb. cans produced at another establishment where unchlorinated water was used for cooling should be withdrawn. I should add, however, that there is no evidence that corned beef from this plant could have been involved in the Aberdeen outbreak.

Medical officers of health are being advised how they can assist in this operation. We are in touch with the trade and I am sure that they will co-operate with us as they did last year.

Although we are taking these precautionary measures, there is no positive evidence at present that the brands to be withdrawn were responsible for the infection; and it must be accepted that many doubts remain unresolved. Because these uncertainties exist, the Government have decided to hold an inquiry, under an independent chairman, to discover the cause of the epidemic. The report of the inquiry will be published in due course. But I should point out that there is no doubt in my mind that the first priority must be to contain the epidemic which is now in Aberdeen.

I should like to take this opportunity, and I am sure that the House will join with me, of expressing my profound sympathy with the townspeople of Aberdeen in their misfortune and my admiration for the public services of the city for the way in which they are confronting it.

Mr. Ross

My hon. Friends and I and the whole House will wish to join with the right hon. Gentleman's expression of sympathy for the people of Aberdeen, a city which has one of the proudest records in Britain for health and cleanliness. We will also wish to be associated with his tribute to the local services.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say why we have had to wait 12 days before getting an authoritative statement from the Government? Is he aware that there has been much speculation and a considerable amount of rumour, along with conflicting statements, which might have been avoided? Is he also aware that only half an hour before he spoke, telling us that there is doubt about the source, there has appeared on the tape a report from the Medical Officer of Health of Aberdeen to the effect that he has no doubt at all as to the source; indeed, that he again mentions that one of the possible sources was a can of meat which emanated from Government stocks?

While agreeing that the right course is now not to hold a post mortem but rather to ensure that the outbreak is contained, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Scottish Health Department has been participating in and guiding the battle for the containment of this epidemic? When did the Scottish Health Department come into the picture? Was that Department consulted and did it have anything to do with the decision not to publish—although many people have argued that it should have been published—the source or suspected source and locus of that source?

Has guidance and help been sought on the question of the need for workers, realising that the Medical Officer of Health has spoken today about the "terrific efforts of our over-small battalion of workers"? Surely one must leave nothing to chance in a matter of this kind, but ensure that everything that can be done is done, particularly to see that the Scottish Office gives all the help that is required.

Mr. Noble

I shall try to answer all the points put by the hon. Member. First, he asked why there was a wait of 12 days before a statement was made giving the facts as I have just given them. Part of the facts in the statement were only finally confirmed yesterday afternoon. In a problem of this sort, where there is no certainty what the cause of the epidemic may be, one has to follow all the leads.

The Medical Officer of Health confirmed that in his view—and, I believe, rightly—it started from a shop that had a counter from which cooked meats were supplied, but the cooked meats were of many different sorts, and all of them had to be checked. So I do not think it remarkable that it should take a number of days of very intensive work to bring the facts properly to light.

The hon. Member's second point related to the statement made by the Medical Officer of Health—which the hon. Gentleman has seen on the tape—that this supply came from a can of meat of 1951 vintage—two cans of meat—

Mr. Ross

The statement was that the source was reduced to the possibility of one of two cans; and that one of those cans came from Government stock.

Mr. Noble

Again, this is something that we have been checking with the greatest possible care, for very obvious reasons.

The shop had been opened for eight weeks before the epidemic—it is a new shop. Every single consignment of cooked meat came to this shop from one depot in Dundee. Every single consignment has been checked with this depot, and the people there assure my officers that not one single can came from anywhere except these recent establishments of which I have spoken in my statement.

I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that the officers from my Department have been in very close touch with the Medical Officer of Health in Aberdeen, and have given him all the help they could and all the help that he has asked for. The hon. Gentleman quoted a reference by the Medical Officer of Health to an "over-small" staff. I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Medical Officer of Health in Aberdeen has been offered, on more than one occasion, any staff that he would like to ask for—the staff is available—but, up to date, he has turned down any offer of extra help.

Mr. J. Harvey

While I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is not answerable for the one case reported this morning from my own constituency, would he agree with me that soap and water and clean hand-towels are the first line of defence against the spread of typhoid infection? Would he and his colleagues who are responsible see that this simple fact is brought home as a matter of urgency to all those who have any sort of responsibility for the maintenance of toilet facilities in local authorities, factories, schools, and the like?

Mr. Noble

I thank my hon. Friend for making that suggestion. These are exactly the points to which Dr. MacQueen has been giving the widest possible publicity in Aberdeen, and through the Scottish Press.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Will the Secretary of State allow me to join with him in paying tribute to the devotion, skill and energy with which Dr. MacQueen and his staff have tackled this unexpected emergency? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the contamination arose from an outside source, and not in Aberdeen, and that the burden put on Dr. MacQueen was, therefore, thoroughly unexpected? Will he see that the inquiry to be set up is sufficiently wide in scope to take into account the points I have just referred to, with a view to preventing any recurrence of this sort?

Mr. Noble

I am very glad to repeat my confidence in the way in which Dr. MacQueen, the health and hospital staffs and other people in Aberdeen have dealt with the outbreak.

The bacillus identified from this outbreak is normally found in Spain, South America and the southern part of the United States. It is not one that is indigenous to Great Britain, so I do not think that Aberdeen need fear in any way that the city was responsible for the start of the outbreak.

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

In view of the urgent need to contain this terrible epidemic, and as vans and other vehicles are still leaving the city in order to trade, and so on, in the countryside, what further steps do the Government propose to take to protect the countryside around the city from the spread of infection?

Mr. Noble

I do not think that it is possible, from all the inquiries I have made, at the moment to think of any extra steps which the Government can take, and which they have power to take, beyond those that Dr. MacQueen has already taken, either by direct action or by advice, in the area round Aberdeen, but we will certainly watch the position as it develops.

Mr. Grimond

Are there any other cases outside Aberdeen, either suspected or confirmed? Further, what exactly are the steps currently being taken—are there restrictions on travel in and out of Aberdeen, or on gatherings in Aberdeen?

Mr. Noble

There are no definite restrictions on travel, and I think for a city of this size and importance it would be impossible to impose them. But the Town Council itself has given a lead by closing the Beach Pavilion, which is a very big restaurant and dance hall, as the sort of step that is reasonable at times like this.

As to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, there are one or two other cases. There is one in Glasgow, I think, and one in Edinburgh—suspected, but not yet absolutely confirmed. I believe that I am right there. And there are one or two in London. But this is not untypical in a normal year. None of these cases that we know of at the moment has any connection with Aberdeen, and the House probably knows that in a normal year we do have isolated cases of typhoid—perhaps 50 or 100.

Dr. Bennett

While it may be early days yet, can my right hon. Friend say whether any of the cases so far confirmed can be traced to infections other than the at present unknown primary source; in fact, whether any cases have been traced to other people who have already contracted the disease?

Mr. Noble

As far as I know at the moment, the answer to that question is "No." Dr. MacQueen's view as expressed today is that this is still the primary stage of the outbreak, and, though each new case as it comes in will be tested to see whether there are any other causes, as far as I know at the moment, there are not.

Mr. G. Brown

There is obviously no difference in any part of the House in the seriousness of the approach to this matter. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when he will be able to announce the name of the independent chairman and the names of the other members of the inquiry committee, and when he expects them to start work?

Further, following on the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) earlier, in view of the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the probable source of infection was traced the day after the first indication of the outbreak, will the Secretary of State say why it has taken 12 days to decide to withdraw certain cans, or brands of cans, of corned beef from circulation?

Does he not think that his statement that another brand that is being withdrawn could not have been in Aberdeen will cause a lot of worry elsewhere in the country? Can the right hon. Gentleman say where else in the country this brand has been available, and whether we might now worry about other cases being already incubated from that?

Mr. Noble

I will announce the name of the chairman as soon as I possibly can.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why, when the source of the infection was discovered the day after the first cases were concerned, there was yet a period of 10 or 12 days before action was taken. The answer is that the source of infection was the food counter in this particular shop in which there were cans of cooked meat, but before we knew, or could possibly tell, which kind of cooked meat, and where those supplies came from—not only the name on the label, but which establishments they came from—a con- siderable amount of research and hard work was needed, which went on continuously.

As soon as we discovered that they came from an establishment which had been using unchlorinated water in the cooling process of the 6 lb. cans, which could be, as I say, the source of infection, we decided to withdraw them.

We then asked immediately whether there were any other establishments—not necessarily firms, because they have many different clients—where the same conditions apply, and we found one other. We thought that it was right, at least until the inquiry has pronounced whether this is the likely source, to withdraw these cans as quickly as possible from the public in case, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it might be conceivably possible that somebody would be incubating the disease from them.

But I should explain to the House that the consumption of corned beef in this country is in the region of 70,000 to 80,000 tons a year. Last year was the first time in history that any question of typhoid could be proved to have emanated from corned beef.

Mr. G. Brown

May I ask—

Mr. Speaker

There is so much to do and it is after four o'clock.

Mr. Brownrose—

Mr. Speaker

Great difficulty is created—

Mr. Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a point which, with respect, I submit emerges, and to which all the country would like to know the answer. Have all these tins already been withdrawn, or are they still available?

Mr. Noble

The question is one which certainly will be worrying people. These are 6 lb. tins, so that they are not likely to be found in the ordinary household. The trade and the medical officers of health of England, Wales and Scotland are being asked today to co-operate with us in having all these withdrawn from circulation.

Back to