HC Deb 09 March 1972 vol 832 cc1657-61

3.45 p.m.

Mrs. Castle

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will make a statement on the latest development in the case of Evans Medical Limited of Speke.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Sir Keith Joseph)

Since I made my statement to the House on Tuesday, my inspectors have been making an intensive investigation of the factory of Evans Medical Ltd. at Speke. They made a preliminary report yesterday morning that a fault in the sterilization process could have caused the contamination in the bottles of dextrose solution used at the Devonport Hospital. It was also revealed that similar faults could possibly have occurred in the production of other batches of dextrose and other solutions manufactured by Evans Medical Ltd.

In these circumstances I placed an immediate embargo throughout the country on the use of any of this manufacturer's solutions until I am completely satisfied as to their purity. The inspectors also reported that during one period in 1970 and since the beginning of this year bottles of similar solutions sold by Allen and Hanbury's under the trade name of Sterivac had been filled and sterilised at the Speke factory. These solutions were therefore included in the embargo.

The House will wish to know that the first results of the bacteriological investigation indicate that a proportion of the bottles from sub-batch D 1192 C contain a growth of common airborne organisms such as would result from a sterilisation failure. It appears that this failure was partial only; two-thirds of 155 bottles examined in one laboratory were clear on visual inspection and a small sample of these on culture shows no bacterial contamination.

The investigations at the Evans Medical factory are continuing, and all production of solutions there has been halted for the time being. Ample supplies of the solutions are available from other manufacturers which are making special efforts to meet hospital requirements.

Mrs. Castle

Would it not have been more courteous to the House if the right hon. Gentleman, to deal with a large number of important points on this matter that were raised on both sides of the House last Tuesday, had volunteered that statement before holding a Press conference? Will he give an undertaking that in future when he has important statements to make he will make them to the House before making them at a Press conference?

While welcoming the right hon. Gentleman's ban on this firm's infusion solutions, may I ask him, first, whether it is not very alarming that 238 bottles are still unaccounted for, and does not this strengthen the case some of us put to him on Tuesday for the need for adequate records to be kept of the product a patient receives?

Second, is it not also alarming that the previous incident in this firm also related to faulty supervision, the faulty sealing of bottles? Therefore, is not it imperative that the right hon. Gentleman tells the House exactly what he intends to do about the institution of quality control and exactly when he proposes to establish adequate inspection, in view of the delay on taking action under the Medicines Act?

Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House anything about an inquiry which we read in the Press he intends to hold? Will he come to the House early next week and give us details of the exact nature and scope of the inquiry and who will be in charge of it?

Sir K. Joseph

I think the House will agree that it was probably right, as new facts came to light yesterday, and as I, in the light of the new facts took decisions, to expose myself and my Chief Medical Officer to questioning by the Press so that the public should fully know the implications.

The right hon. Lady's other questions fit in very well with her last question about an inquiry. As I told the House in answer to the original Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), I was contemplating from the beginning the need for an inquiry. It now seems to me that there may necessarily have to be two parallel inquiries, one into what happened in this tragic episode and another, a wider-ranging one which may take longer, into the lessons we must learn from this episode for the inspection processes. I will inform the House as soon as possible of the Government's decision, and I hope to have a decision on the most urgent of these two urgent inquiries by the beginning of next week. I shall consult through the usual channels to see how best to make this information available.

Dame Joan Vickers

As my right hon. Friend said that if I put down a Question no doubt he would answer it, will he stick to that promise? He was absolutely right to give as wide a warning as possible, and the best way of doing so was through the Press. The more people who are warned about the danger the better, and I hope he will continue this process without frightening individual patients more than necessary.

Sir K. Joseph

In the light of the, as it were, ramifying importance of the subject I would like to consult my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport before deciding whether it would be right to give the further information by way of an answer to her or in a statement.

Mr. Ogden

Will the Secretary of State confirm that Evans Medical Ltd. has rightly enjoyed the best possible reputation for the safety and efficacy of its drugs over a long period. This is no fly-by-night operator. I have a deep personal debt to this company, for it was the safety, efficacy and availability of its drugs some years ago that helped to save the lives of my own two sons, and many other families are in a similar position. Will he also confirm that at Evans Medical Ltd., Speke, all are co-operating in every possible way with the officers of his Department to find out what happened on this occasion and make sure it never happens again?

Sir K. Joseph

I have no reason to dissent in any way from the generous and proper tribute paid by the hon. Member for Liverpool. West Derby (Mr. Ogden).

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Secretary of State aware that as a general rule the House wishes to be informed first on any matters, but there are occasions when it is more necessary to allay public fears and doubts and some of us think this is such a case. We would not wish to criticise the fact that the disclosure was made to the Press.

The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the written representations he has made to hospitals in this country, but can he say whether any other persons might be in possession of this medicine? I am thinking of doctors' pharmacies. Is he satisfied that the warning he has given is sufficiently widespread to cover any that might still be in circulation?

Sir K. Joseph

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his first comment. On the second, my Chief Medical Officer has written to all medical officers of health, and they are the channel of communication to the other potential users.

Mr. Pavitt

On the long term, the inquiry, the steps to be taken and the announcement by the Secretary of State on Tuesday about the inspectorate, is he satisfied that the Medicines Act, 1968, gives the Committee on the Safety of Medicines sufficient power and cash to do the kind of job which this case obviously reveals is necessary? Does it not show that he was over-hasty in abandoning the MacGregor Committee? Would it not have been more appropriate for the MacGregor Committee to be retained to deal with such matters, as it would have done previously?

Sir K. Joseph

Obviously, the powers and resources of my Department and the Medicines Commission will be some of the subjects to be covered by the inquiry. As for the MacGregor Committee, I think it covered a parallel but quite distinct function.

Dr. David Owen

Is the Secretary of State yet in a position to tell the House how much of the possibly contaminated batch that was first put on the market in April last year has been used? Though he was very forthcoming about two possible inquiries, there is considerable anxiety in my area and we would want an inquiry into other deaths over the last few months which might have taken place as a result of the use of that contaminated batch.

Sir K. Joseph

It is probable, although I do not have more detailed knowledge, that a lot of the medicine bottles have been used. But I would emphasise that the first report from the Public Health Laboratory Service reveals that a proportion of the offending sub-batch was free of contamination, so that is some reassurance. The second part of the question is not one for me. If individuals seek to re-open questions of the cause of death, it is by way of approach to the coroner, which is primarily a matter for the Home Secretary.

Dr. Miller

Since contamination is always possible, even though it is a remote possibility, will the Secretary of State say how far he has proceeded along the lines of instituting a test for contamination immediately before use of the substance? It should not be difficult for a test of this kind to be developed.

Sir K. Joseph

I do not profess to have the hon. Member's medical knowledge, but my lay understanding is that bacteriological tests of this sort take at least 24 hours, so there can be no question of instituting tests just before use of the material.

Mrs. Castle

No one in the House denies the Secretary of State's duty to keep the public informed on a matter of this importance. The complaint in this case is that the right hon. Gentleman did not volunteer a statement to the House, which also has a right to hear the matters that he is conveying in considerable detail to the Press. Is he aware that on this side we would not be satisfied with the further information that he has promised being conveyed in the form of a written answer to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), but would expect him to make another statement in the House.

Sir K. Joseph

I note carefully what the right hon. Lady has said.