HC Deb 03 March 1999 vol 326 cc1061-3
2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

What meetings he has had with the National Meningitis Trust. [72454]

6. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

What recent meetings he has had with the Meningitis Research Foundation. [72458]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael)

While I have not met the trust or the foundation personally, my officials have had regular contact with them over recent weeks. I have also invited both organisations to nominate representatives to join the group that we recently set up to examine meningitis in Wales. Both groups were represented at the first meeting. I can promise swift action on any recommendations that come from that group. In the longer term, the issue will be one which the National Assembly will wish to pursue.

Mr. Amess

There have been more reported cases of meningitis recently than there have been for 50 years, and 45 of those cases have been in Wales. As the father of young children, I empathise with those parents who are concerned when their children become ill about what the possible circumstances of that illness might be. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what tangible support the Government are giving to the National Meningitis Trust, which is currently beleaguered by telephone calls from concerned parents?

Mr. Michael

I understand the concerns that parents have in such circumstances, for personal reasons. My son had meningitis when he was a university student and for a few days we were very afraid, until we got the news that it was not life threatening. I understand the emotions of people in Pontypridd, for instance, which has seen a large number of cases. However, it is difficult to discover anything tangible that can be identified as linking cases and can lead to preventive and prophylactic action as appropriate. That is why we established a group, which is chaired by a distinguished medical expert, to consider the evidence. Although the available evidence suggests a statistical issue rather than something that can be identified as the cause of the cases that have occurred, we want to go further—for the very reason the hon. Gentleman mentioned—because we need to do everything we can to identify anything that could explain the number of cases that have arisen in a specific area at a specific time.

Mr. Winterton

The Secretary of State's responses are highly satisfactory, as far as they go. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) with his children, I have an interest because of my young grandchildren. However, my interest lies not only in my own family, or with what has happened in Wales. There has also been a meningitis outbreak in Macclesfield, and both the National Meningitis Trust and the Meningitis Research Foundation have been overwhelmed by approaches from anxious parents. The two charities receive some Government assistance, but is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to give additional funds to take the charities through a period during which the demands on their voluntary helpers and paid staff are so dramatically heavy?

Mr. Michael

I understand the pressures that are resulting from people seeking information. It has put pressure on the public services as well. However, in seeking to deal with queries from the public and to provide the help that they need, we must consider the outcome of the work of the group to which I have already referred. If public information and co-operation with the voluntary sector are proved to be necessary, we shall consider acting on the recommendations of the group's report. For now, however, that issue is not at the forefront. The priority is to establish what can be done to identify links on which we can act.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

My right hon. Friend will know that during the recent outbreaks, particularly that in the constituency of the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), there was a great deal of scaremongering and ill-informed comment. The situation was not helped by certain people who used it for political purposes, which is much to be regretted. Will my right hon. Friend make available sufficient resources for a proper education programme to be developed in schools? The latest outbreak is one of half a dozen in recent years, and the public need to be educated if we are not to have such scaremongering again.

Mr. Michael

My hon. Friend is right. Comments were made that were unhelpful, but some were inspired by genuine concern among parents and others. One problem is that dealing with meningitis is not easy. If it were simple to identify a specific strain, action would have been taken long ago. Steps taken include the establishment by the health authority of an outbreak control team, in which experts from the communicable disease surveillance centre and the Public Health Laboratory Service in Wales were involved along with voluntary organisations. I kept in close contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, as did the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones).

The way in which the public services responded was entirely praiseworthy. They tried to make sure that information was made available as quickly and fully as possible to schools, and there was excellent co-operation between the education and health services. However, we must apply all tests to find out why the number of cases that emerged did so, as we are seeking to do with the advice and help of all available experts.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

We welcome the inquiry, but, to return to what the Secretary of State said earlier, is an appraisal being made of the usefulness of the recent diagnostic invention that can identify strains of the disease?

Mr. Michael

Yes, that is one of the issues that the committee is considering.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The Secretary of State has a deep concern about meningitis following his personal experience, as does the hon. Member for Pontypridd, because of what happened in his constituency. However, Wales has the second highest incidence of meningitis in Europe, and we seek swift action from the committee that is considering that dreadful disease. The group has met once. When will there be some positive guidance for parents who are deeply concerned by the outbreak so that they may be reassured? No one wants to create a panic, but proper reassurance and guidance must be given to the parents.

Mr. Michael

I thank the hon. Gentleman for way in which he made his point. I assure him not only that we will act swiftly on recommendations that come from the group, as I promised earlier, but that the group is tackling its job with a sense of urgency and hopes to report by the end of May. That will be the starting point for action. Longer-term actions are being taken in respect of identifying vaccines. We are not in that situation yet, but that work, with the short-term identification of anything that we can do, will be given the urgency that he seeks.