HC Deb 08 June 1964 vol 696 cc43-9
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Noble)

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

This afternoon there are 412 patients in hospital in Aberdeen, only 10 more than yesterday; 345 of these are confirmed cases of typhoid fever and 67 supected cases under investigation. I am glad to be able to tell the House that the pattern of illness has been generally mild.

It appears from investigation into the histories of these patients that the infection of the vast majority can be traced directly to a connection with the supermarket in Aberdeen where the primary source of infection probably occurred—which had been open for eight months instead of eight weeks as I erroneously said last Tuesday. This means that there has been relatively little spread as yet from those whose infection was contracted there.

Elsewhere in the country 31 patients—29 in Scotland and two in England and Wales—are in hospital with typhoid fever contracted in Aberdeen and 40 are under investigation. It is, perhaps, inevitable that some cases will occur from close contact with the disease, but although it cannot be stated certainly that there will be no wide spread the measures taken by the public authorities and the advice given to the public should contain and minimise the threat.

The management of the large food factory at Dyce, which has been closed voluntarily for a fortnight, took this action after consultation with the County Medical Officer of Health and Dr. MacQueen as a precautionary measure because all its workers were resident in Aberdeen.

Although people living in Aberdeen are still advised not to move out of the city at present and people from elsewhere should only travel to Aberdeen on essential business, medical advice is that there is no need for a more rigid restriction in movement at present.

I have made available a senior medical officer from my Department to reinforce Dr. MacQueen's staff. Additional public health staff are immediately available from the other Scottish cities, but their services have not as yet been needed.

My Chief Medical Officer, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health, has publicly advised that general inoculation against the enteric group of fevers is unwise and has stressed that a high standard of general hygiene is the best preventive of spread.

Although, in view of the action that has been taken, it is not thought that any wide spread of the epidemic is likely, medical officers of health in other parts of the country have been reminded of the importance of keeping a watch on the situation in their areas.

I have already announced that the Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry will be Sir David Milne, formerly Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office. The other members will be:

Professor A. B. Semple, Professor of Public Health in Liverpool University; Medical Officer of Health and Port Medical Officer, City of Liverpool.

Dr. J. W. Howie, Director of the Public Health Laboratory Service in England and Wales.

Mr. A. M. Borthwick, Chairman of Thos. Borthwick & Sons Ltd., meat importers and distributors, London.

Mrs. Gabrielle Pyke, J.P., Chairman of the National Federation of Women's Institutes of England Wales.

My right hon. Friends and I are grateful to them for their readiness to serve on the Committee.

The terms of reference of the inquiry are: To investigate the cause of the primary infection in the recent outbreak of typhoid fever in Aberdeen and the means by which it was disseminated, and to report. As I said last week, the first priority is to contain the present epidemic, and the Committee will not wish to add to the burden of work at present falling on the medical officer of health and his staff. Subject to this, however, they will get down to work as soon as possible.

Mr. Ross

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that although there has been this widespread outbreak and the danger of it spreading, we welcome the fact that it is relatively mild in its nature? That, at least, is reassuring.

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us some assurance about the inquiry? We are glad that it has been set up, but it is rather disappointing that nothing is to happen.

The right hon. Gentleman says that adidtional staff are now available, and can be called on by the medical officer of health. Would not it be wise for that to be done, and to get down right away to the business of tracking down the source and learning some lessons of how it was disseminated? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that all the steps which should have been taken in relation to corned beef have been taken, particularly the 1951 supplies?

My last question relates to hard-pressed staff and what is being done by the Medical Officer of Health of Aberdeen and his staff. A pamphlet is being issued to every householder in Aberdeen. Was this produced by Aberdeen itself, or was it produced by the Scottish Health Department?

Mr. Noble

I think that it would be impossible to treat the matter as simply as the hon. Gentleman has by bringing in extra staff to relieve Dr. MacQueen and the people who have been doing the work so that they can give their whole time to the inquiry. The purpose of the inquiry is to investigate the cause of the infection. A great deal of the work which the Committee will be studying is being produced day by day in Aberdeen from the medical records of the people concerned. I hope that no time will be wasted in getting an answer to the inquiry. but I do not believe that it could be done just by shifting staff at this moment.

Everything that could be done about the corned beef has been done, and the supplies from the two establishments to which I referred in the House last week are being called in at the moment. As I told the House, as far as I know there is no question of the 1951 supplies of Government stocks being involved in the outbreak. The Committee of Inquiry will clearly be looking at this as one of its problems.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's last supplementary question, the pamphlet was produced in Aberdeen.

Mr. K. Robinson

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman when the Government first became aware that there were stocks of corned beef in this country which had not been treated with chlorinated water during the cooling process? When this information was conveyed to the right hon. Gentleman and to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, what steps did they take, or, if they did not take any, did they consider this an acceptable risk?

Mr. Noble

As I think I said in the House last week, all the stocks up to 1955 in the country, whether Government or any other, were cooled with unchlorinated untreated water, so this was known for a considerable time.

Since the outbreaks at Bedford and Harlow last year, the decision from the medical officers investigating these outbreaks pointed very clearly to the possibility of corned beef being the cause. The supplies from the establishments which had produced that corned beef were called in. Immediately following that, an official from the Department of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food went to South America and investigated a whole series of establishments. In the middle of March he informed the Government by telegram that one establishment was producing corned beef and was not using chlorinated water.

The stocks from that supply were stopped on the high seas and were not accepted into this country, or were accepted only in bond. Large quantities of corned beef from that factory had been circulating through the country for perhaps eight or nine months beforehand. They were not withdrawn.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that he has made a terrible mistake in appointing as chairman of this inquiry an ex-civil servant, particularly one connected with his Department, instead of appointing a High Court judge, with judicial qualities, accustomed to examining and cross-examining witnesses, including expert witnesses? Will the right hon. Gentleman immediately rectify that mistake by appointing a High Court judge and also by widening the scope of the inquiry?

Does the right hon. Gentleman further realise that there are far too many probabilities and possibilities in his statement? What the House and the country want is a clear and definite report by a thoroughly competent, experienced and qualified inquiry. Will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to that end?

Mr. Noble

What the hon. and learned Gentleman wants from his inquiry is most likely to be achieved by the appointment of Sir David Milne, who is regarded by a great many Members of the House, and by the public outside who have had anything to do with him, as extremely competent and quite impartial. I do not regard the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Gentleman that because, five years ago, Sir David Milne was head of the Scottish Office, that makes him inappropriate to carry out this investigation. I think that it increases the likelihood of getting the right answer, because he understands conditions in Scotland as a whole.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the composition of this Committee will give the utmost satisfaction to the people of Scotland, particularly the appointment of Sir David Milne, a man of vast experience and much common sense?

Mr. G. Brown

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those who know Sir David Milne are sure that he will do his job? The only worry we have is that he will to some extent be inquiring into the Department of which, until recently, he was the head?

The Minister said today that he and his right hon. Friend were advised months ago—presumably in time to avoid this outbreak—to withdraw these supplies of corned beef. The right hon. Gentleman said that he did not do so. Will he now tell us why he did not, and whether the Committee of Inquiry is being asked to inquire into why that was not done?

Mr. Noble

The position is that, as I have said, the House knows that all corned beef up to 1955 was from plants and establishments using unchlorinated water. The plant to which I have referred was at fault in this respect. It had had a chlorinating plant, but it had broken down and had not been repaired. On the other hand, in the case to which I referred, in Harlow and Bedford last year, there was an extra problem because the water supplying the cooling plant to that establishment—a different one—was coming from an area in which there was a town which had had a serious typhoid epidemic.

In this case there was no information of any typhoid outbreak in the area in which the plant operated, or of any outbreak connected with its products, and it was not considered right to take steps to recover the wholesale and retail distribution of such stocks of corned beef from the plant as were already in the country, for what I regard as the understandable reason that we consume about 80,000 tons of corned beef a year, and have done so for a great many years.

It was only last year that we could, with any certainty, impute typhoid to corned beef at all. There is no certainty yet that corned beef is involved in this epidemic, although the inquiry will be looking into this. The withdrawing of vast quantities of food on what could be the scantiest of evidence did not seem wise at the time.

Mr. G. Brown

The Minister or his colleague took steps to stop some corned beef on the high seas. What made it so much safer at home that he decided not to stop it at home?

Mr. Noble

The problem is fairly simple. Once the information came to us that this factory was not operating according to the best health standards there was a very good case for telling the factory concerned, and the Argentine Government, who had issued a certificate, that we would not release the meat. Perhaps we might consider that as a form of sanction behind the high standards that we expect from exporters. But because of the long history of freedom from any danger from corned beef, with the exception of one place—and this was one incident—

Mr. Brown

You stopped it on the high seas.

Mr. Noble

It was stopped on the high seas as soon as it was known that this plant was not carrying out the proper process. [HON. MEMBERS: "WHY?"] In our view, and in the view of our medical advisers, the risk was not sufficient to justify a withdrawal of the meat already in the country.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter without a Question before the House.

Mr. Ross

Very unsatisfactory.