HL Deb 12 December 1995 vol 567 cc1168-71

3.2 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croyasked Her Majesty's Government:

What advice they have for members of the public concerning the possibility of an epidemic of influenza over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the Department of Health issued a leaflet for the public in October which gave advice on how to avoid influenza, what to do if they caught it and who should be vaccinated. Posters and leaflets are routinely displayed in GPs' surgeries. Doctors were reminded in the summer to plan their influenza vaccination campaign, which this year was launched in October.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her reply. I understand that epidemic status has now been reached. After the previous visitations of the Asian and Hong Kong versions, is there any reason for naming this year's variety "Johannesburg 'flu", other than similarity to symptoms of acute anxiety over cricket there last week? As I understand from my noble friend's reply that inoculations are being advised, has the vaccine improved since the helpful words of caution in 1986 from my noble friend Lady Trumpington, whom we all hope to see back soon fully restored to robust health?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I understand that the various strains of influenza are named according to where they start. I am not quite sure what the correlation is with cricket on this occasion, but I know that Atherton was declared "Man of the Match" so he must have been fit and well. As regards vaccination, that has improved since 1986. I am sure that what my noble friend Lady Trumpington had to say on that occasion was correct. It would have to be a very brave and virulent virus to take on my noble friend.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that in Scotland we make a medicine which, taken with a little lemon and sugar at bedtime, ensures that the influenza will at least be pleasant?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I believe that that is a question for my noble friend from the Department of Trade and Industry.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, can the noble Baroness advise the House whether vaccine is available? Having attempted to obtain vaccination myself over the past fortnight, I have been told by my GP that there are only 50 doses left in the country and that he is unable to obtain any.

A noble Lord

The noble Lord is too young!

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, there is enough vaccine around at the moment. If the noble Lord would like to give me the name of his GP, I shall ensure that he gets a supply.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I was one of the fortunate people to get some of this rare vaccine? Is she further aware that I then contracted a condition which I would have been certain was influenza if I had not known that I could not have it?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I believe that is called holistic medicine and it is to do with the mind rather than the body.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, following the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and the information that there is adequate distribution of this vaccine, is the Minister equally convinced—in the event of there being a serious 'flu epidemic, particularly over the Christmas holidays when the hospitals will be short-staffed—that adequate provision has been made for emergency provisions which, as we all know, are causing considerable concern in the health service?

Baroness Cumberlege

Yes, my Lords. I am advised that manufacturers of the influenza vaccine currently have 20,000 doses available for distribution and a further 27,000 awaiting clearance, so I believe that there really is enough vaccine around. As regards the second point made by the noble Baroness, it is important that we make it clear to people that this programme exists and that those who are at high risk should in fact go to their GP to be vaccinated.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is not this form of influenza very dangerous for asthma patients and people who have bad chests? Can the Minister give some advice about what those kinds of patients should do?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct in that they are the people who are categorised as being at high risk, as are people with coronary heart disease, kidney failure, diabetes and diseases which suppress the immune system. The advice is that they should be vaccinated and seek the advice of their GP or the practice nurse, if they feel that they already have a dose of 'flu.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sorry to come back to this matter. I believe that the Minister may have misunderstood my second point, which was not so much about the availability of GP consultation on this subject but the availability of hospital beds, particularly over the Christmas period when I suspect that the hospitals will be short-staffed.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, it depends on the severity. There are very few people who have to be admitted to hospital. However, I am sure that the National Health Service will look after those who require that treatment but, on the whole, it is a question of staying in bed and drinking a lot—

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Cumberlege

—of the right product!

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that a number of hospitals in the West Midlands have been on red alert and have had to cancel routine operations because of the 'flu epidemic that started there and that people have once again been kept in corridors? Can she give an assurance that that will not happen throughout the country, because people are very concerned about having treatment when they need it?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, although this outbreak has been categorised as a moderate epidemic, it is not nearly as serious as the one we had in 1993. We believe that this epidemic is about to reach its peak. In fact, in 1919 when there was the most serious pandemic, more people died then than in the First World War. We are in no way in that sort of situation. I believe that the National Health Service is well versed in how to deal with this problem and also how to look after its own staff if it is suspected that this disease is going round hospitals.