HC Deb 29 October 1969 vol 790 cc159-62
Mr. Onslow

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action has been taken by his Department following the recent death of a dog at Camberley from rabies, and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

This dog died of rabies shortly after completing the prescribed six months in quarantine. The medical authorities were informed immediately and they have taken all necessary steps to safeguard human health. To preclude the spread of this disease, immediate restrictions were placed on the few dogs known to have had contact with the infected animal ; and similar restrictions have since been applied to nearly 150 possible contacts. I have also authorised a special drive against susceptible wild life in the relatively small area concerned.

My Department has made preliminary inquiries into the circumstances of this incident. Before coming to this country the dog had been kept and exercised freely in a part of West Germany where rabies is prevalent. While it was in quarantine in this country another dog in the same quarantine premises died of rabies. My Department has therefore inquired particularly into the possibility of cross-infection but found no grounds for suspecting that it had occurred. I am proposing, however, to arrange for a further investigation in detail into the circumstances in which this dog contracted rabies.

I am reviewing our safeguards against the introduction of this disease and I will make a further statement as soon as possible. Meantime, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I are satisfied that the import of certain exotic species susceptible to rabies should be brought within the quarantine arrangements. The necessary arrangements are being worked out.

I am most grateful to the police and the other organisations which have given so much help to my Department. Above all, I should like to express my warm appreciation to the residents of Camberley and Frimley for their magnificent cooperation throughout. I am sure that the House will join me in sympathising with those who are suffering from hardship because of this case.

Mr. Onslow

I am sure the House will be grateful to the Minister for that statement. I am also sure that everyone will support him in necessary measures to minimise the danger to human life from this dreadful disease to which a number of my constituents have unhappily been exposed.

May I ask three questions? First, was there no proper contingency plan to deal with such an outbreak? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that every possible step is taken to ensure that quarantine regulations are properly observed and that there is no cross-infection in the kennels? Thirdly, since this apparently is the third occasion since the war when a dog has developed rabies more than six months after being admitted to quarantine, will he undertake to consider whether the quarantine period should be raised to eight months?

Mr. Hughes

As to contingency arrangements, this is a matter at which my further inquiry will be looking very carefully indeed and I shall indicate to the House what further measures should be taken. As to the other cases to which the hon.. Member has referred, he is right in saying that there have been three since 1922 but we should bear in mind that the three were out of a total of 100,000 susceptible animals quarantined. We should also bear in mind that the regulations in this country, providing for six months quarantine, are the most progressive in the world.

Mr. Godber

Will the right hon. Gentleman enlarge a little more on what he said in reply to the first question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow)? I do not think he gave a full answer in regard to contingency plans. While assuring the Minister that the whole House would wish to support him in any measure necessary to prevent a spread of this disease, may I ask him to tell us a little more about the arrangements being made for the killing of wild life in the area? If this is necessary now, surely it should have been done at once. Will he also tell us what proposals there are for tomorrow because some of the statements made seem to be somewhat wild?

May I finally ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will pay particular attention to the dangers that can arise from rats, which are the nearest to human habitation and might be more likely to spread this disease than any other animal?

Mr. Hughes

The destruction of wild life is necessary because the dog was at large and unobserved for about 50 minutes. The area to be covered is not large, and the number of susceptible animals—foxes, squirrels and rats in particular—is not likely to be great. The House will generally agree, and this is appreciated in the country, that my Department has taken very speedy action to safeguard human and animal life.

Turning to contingency arrangements, when one has regard to the fact that there have been only three cases since 1922 I think that rapid action was taken. As I have said, this is a matter which I shall want to consider very carefully in the light of the inquiry I am now instituting.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Will the right hon. Gentleman's inquiry consider again the question of inoculation? Would he bear in mind that the automatic lengthening of quarantine may produce extra insurance but it would also produce extra hardship for the owners of pets who already have to be without their pets for a very long period of time, which already leads people, sometimes, to decide not to come to this country?

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Member will agree that the preponderant consideration in this case is the deadly nature of the disease and the dangers to human life. I have given the question of inoculation careful thought in the last few days. There are strong technical reasons why vaccine would not serve our purpose. No vaccine is 100 per cent. effective, and some forms of vaccine are of little value for very young animals. The virus might be excreted by symptomless carriers. We have considered this carefully, and this is the judgment we have reached.