HC Deb 18 December 1981 vol 15 cc550-3

11 am

The Minister for Health (Dr. Gerard Vaughan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement on first-aid dressings imported into this country in recent months.

These dressings are unusual in that they do not have any manufacturers' or brand name on them. In most cases they are simply labelled with words such as "Sterilised lint dressing BP" or "Sterilised lint dressing BPC" or "Sterilised wound dressing BP" or "BPC".

We know that they are contaminated with a variety of bacteria, but at this stage we do not know exactly what the bacteria are. Similar dressings imported into Australia two months ago were found, after an investigation of a case of gas gangrene, to be similarly infected. The risk from using these contaminated dressings is small, but real, and members of the public who have dressings that they suspect may be these should not use them. If possible, they should destroy them.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

Why was it necessary for the Opposition to insist on a statement being made on a subject of this importance? It is clear that many contaminated dressings have been circulating in this country for perhaps a year. The Australian High Commission in London issued a press notice as long ago as last September. Why, when the Minister was informed by the public health laboratory at Colindale that there was clear evidence of contamination, did he not come to the House and make it clear that it would be extremely dangerous to use these contaminated dressings?

Why has the Minister not put into operation any system for recalling the contaminated dressings? Is he convinced that none of them are circulating in National Health Service hospitals? Further, I am horrified to learn that there appear to be no safeguards against the importation of contaminated medical dressings.

Will the Minister give a guarantee that he intends to come back to the House immediately after the recess with specific legislation that will not leave the imposition of safeguards to the importers of medical dressings, but will ensure that such an incident cannot arise again because minimum health standards will be applied to the importation of all similar goods?

Dr. Vaughan

I understand the hon. Lady's concern, but she should bear in mind that unless we are sure that we are dealing with contaminated articles—we did not know the sort of contamination in this instance—it would be wrong to alarm the public and then find that our information was misleading. As soon as we knew that there was a serious likelihood of contamination, we issued a press release.

We have been in touch with many of the importers and with as many points of sale as possible. For example, we understand that at one time they were on sale at British Home Stores and Woolworth, but they have now been withdrawn. I am considering whether any further action can be taken on importing dressings of this sort. However, the hon. Lady has missed a point here. The fault is not only with the importing, but with the labelling of the dressings. That is a serious matter and we must look into it further.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The Minister has not given me any assurance that he is convinced that these dressings are not already circulating in the NHS, and he has not answered the question which to me is basic. If he knew that there was a likelihood that contaminated dressings were lying in first-aid boxes all over the country, why did he not come to the House, make that public, and say that he would bring in safeguards to ensure that there was no danger in the future?

Several Hon. Members


Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow questions to run until 11.15 am, but not a moment longer, because of the important debate that is under way.

Dr. Vaughan

I am happy to answer the hon. Lady. I thought that, as many hon. Members were on their feet, it might be better to deal with a number of questions together.

Mr. William Pitt (Croydon, North-West)

I should like to take further the point made by the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody). What puzzles me is why, if dressings bear the marking of the British pharmacopoeia and the British pharmaceutical codex, there is not a more stringent test on them when they come into the country. Will the Minister tell the House how many of these dressings are on sale in retail shops and whether they can be removed from sale? More important, if the danger from these dressings is minimal, will he reassure us of that and assure us that we shall not be infected by them? Perhaps in the meantime the Government will suggest that people should refrain from using them and instead use handkerchiefs, Band-Aids, or some other form of dressing

Dr. Vaughan

As soon as we knew that there was a risk, I instructed that a hazard notice should be issued. A press notice was issued and information was given in the press and on television. We do not know how many of these dressings are in circulation. We are concerned about that, and we are looking into it. I assure the House that I am taking urgent steps to examine the controls on importation.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

If I am correct in assuming that the importation of dangerous drugs is subject to controls over which my hon. Friend presides, is there not an argument now, in the light of this incident—which is the first that I can remember—for extending the controls to take account not only of the importation of drugs but of appliances, too? In a domestic sense, is my hon. Friend satisfied that there is no power under the Trade Descriptions Acts to require these potentially dangerous materials to be properly labelled on importation?

Dr. Vaughan

My hon. Friend is right to raise those points. We are looking into the matter urgently. We did not act on the Australian information because we had to find out first whether there were similar dressings in this country and then find out whether they were contaminated. We then acted urgently.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Under the Medicines Acts, the Medicines Commission imposes stringent controls on companies such as Boots, in my constituency. Clearly, in this instance, the Medicines Commission failed in its duty in relation to imports. Is that the case, and will the Minister assure us that Boots, among other companies, has not been selling these dangerous products?

Dr. Vaughan

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are as concerned as he is over the importing of such materials and whether the controls are adequate, and on the labelling when they are in this country. The labels on these dressings are not satisfactory and I shall look into the matter further.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

Will my hon. Friend use his influence to see that further coverage is given on television of the presentation of these packs so that they can be recognised? Has he any evidence, since he said that the goods were unnamed, of counterfeiting of brand names on these phoney dressings?

Dr. Vaughan

We have no evidence of counterfeiting on any dressings. The dressings are unusual in that they have no manufacturers' or brand names on them. We have issued photographs of the suspected dressings and we shall take every step possible to see that further publicity is given.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Will the Minister tell his Department to instruct every RHA supplies officer to check whether there are any such dressings in the bulk buying system? As there was also a previous case of cosmetics being imported that could cause dermatological and other diseases, will the Minister immediately instruct his legal officers to look at the Medicines Act with a view to extending the jurisdiction to imports other than drugs?

Dr. Vaughan

The answer to both questions is "Yes".

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

As the matter is of such grave import, why did the Minister fail to come to the House immediately that it came to his knowledge, so that the greatest possible publicity could be given to a matter that could imperil the lives of a number of our citizens?

Dr. Vaughan

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's critism. We have a duty to warn the public immediately we know that there is a danger, but we also hate a duty to find out as quickly as we can what the organisms are and how great the danger is. As I said, the risk from using such dressings is very small.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

What instructions has the Minister issued to RHAs and DHAs to take action through pharmacists and to make the problem known at grassroots level?

Dr. Vaughan

We have issued notices to supplies departments, and I shall take the matter up with regional chairmen.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

How long ago were such dressings first imported and made available for sale? Although the dressings may not have individual brand names on them, when they are sold in first-aid boxes the make of the box could be made known to the public, so will the hon. Gentleman attend to that?

Dr. Vaughan

I shall consider whether we can take further steps. As hon. Members who have seen the press notice will realise, one difficulty is that, although the words on the dressings are simple, there is a great variety of them. We are considering whether there are ways to trace the dressings more adequately and better to inform the public. We do not know for how long the dressings have been coming into the country, but we suspect that it may be a year or more.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Under section 6 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 when an article is offered for sale for use at work there is a duty on the importer and distributor to ensure that it is free from risk to health. That being so, why are we subjected time after time to the importation of damaged and dangerous commodities and yet no action is taken? Why is there no surveillance at the ports of imported articles to ensure that they conform with the Act, even if it means employing further civil servants?

Dr. Vaughan

As far as I am aware, this is the first time that such a situation has arisen. I share the concern of hon. Members, and I am looking urgently to see what safeguards we have over the importation of such materials.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Does the Minister accept that he has dealt with this urgent matter with appalling lethargy and that there is still little sign that he is taking the urgent steps that are necessary? Does he accept that he was informed by the Colindale public health laboratory that there was definite evidence of contamination, and that he knew from the reported Australian case that there was at least a risk of botulism, tetanus and other major fatal diseases, yet he still took time to make a statement? Is that his idea of protecting the public?

Dr. Vaughan

When the hon. Lady looks into the matter, I believe that she will regret her remarks. They are untrue. We have dealt with the matter urgently. Statements about botulism and tetanus have appeared in the press, but we have no accurate information on that from the Australians. I take the matter as seriously as the hon. Lady does and am looking into it urgently.