HL Deb 04 June 1998 vol 590 cc467-70

3.21 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the existing arrangements at international airports in Great Britain for treating passengers who arrive suffering from ill-health as a consequence of long-distance flights.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, medical arrangements at British airports for treating long-haul passengers are a matter for the individual airport managements. I understand that they have arrangements in place for summoning ambulances to meet aircraft where that is necessary and for assisting passengers who need medical help elsewhere on the airport.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Is the noble Baroness aware that following a long journey I suffered a DVT—for the curious, that is a deep vein thrombosis—following which I received a letter from Dr. Dale Egerton? He informed me that when his wife left a flight from Cape Town seriously ill he was told that at Heathrow: they had no medical facilities or medical room for a basic examination". Will the Minister comment on the situation? Will she reassure the House that it is not general and that there is inter-departmental collaboration, in particular between the Department of Health and her department?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, there are a number of issues of common concern between the Department of Health and my department which we discuss. I became aware of the deep vein thrombosis which my noble friend unfortunately suffered after his journey during our recent debate. I have drawn to the attention of the chairman of the CAA and the secretary-general of the British Air Transport Association the issues which he related in particular in relation to the need for information to be given to passengers about the potential risks of thrombosis after long flights.

As regards on-site facilities at airports, I am surprised to hear of his correspondent's experience because at Heathrow, Gatwick, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham airports there are medical facilities which offer nurse-based treatment. Airport staff should be fully briefed to direct passengers to those as necessary. If my noble friend has further information about what happened on this occasion I should be happy to bring it to the attention of the BAA.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the disturbing recent reports of an increasing number of people arriving at British airports suffering ill health due to very poor in-flight air quality? Have the Government undertaken any research into that problem? If not, will they do so?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware that there is concern about this issue. I am advised that it is unlikely that the spread of infectious diseases on aircraft is caused by the recycling of cabin air by air-conditioning systems. Those systems on modern aircraft have high efficiency particulate air filters which filter out bacteria and almost all viruses. I know that it is a matter of concern, and the consistent and satisfactory performance of the air-conditioning system should be ensured by correct maintenance procedures. The conduct of those maintenance procedures is audited by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that for most people, of any age, before undertaking a long flight it is a sensible precaution to take an aspirin? That is particularly relevant to the noble Lord's problem. Will she make that advice more widely known?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, rather than give any medical advice myself, it would be sensible to draw the attention of the House and the public to the fact that the Aerospace Medical Association has produced medical guidelines for air travel which addresses deep vein thrombosis. Most airlines give advice to passengers, particularly those who are at risk of DVT, as to the precautionary measures they could take both before flying and in flight.

Lord Winston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, sadly, the medical arrangements for emergencies on aircraft are sometimes woefully inadequate, even with carriers which originate from Great Britain? Is she further aware that on one occasion on mid-Atlantic flight I was called as a doctor to attend a collapsed individual with chest pain? The individual being 79, it seemed unlikely that it was a case of contraception or emergency fertility treatment. However, there was no equipment whatever to deal with the patient. Is there a case for having basic provisions such as drip sets and blood pressure equipment on aircraft which are registered in Britain?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am sure that there is such a case, although I know of examples of improvisation in flight where the treatment has been extremely successful without what might be called conventional equipment. I am thinking of the coat hanger and the mineral bottle. Obviously, my noble friend raises an important point which I shall be happy to pass on to carriers and to the CAA.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the useful request made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, would be better addressed to the International Civil Aviation Organisation rather than the CAA as that would ensure that all planes throughout the world carry such equipment?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord has great experience in aviation matters and I will take his advice on this. I am sure that the advice could well be promulgated at a national, European and international level.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, will the Minister take note of the fact that British Airways was kind enough to write to me following our recent debate? I was delighted to learn of the range of issues which are drawn to the attention of the travelling public once they are on board the plane. Does the Minister agree that the problem is in preparation for the flight and in having medical facilities available at the end of the flight? If the Minister can consider the matter seriously in collaboration with all those concerned this initiative may well produce a good outcome.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as in all health matters, education is important. Information provided to passengers before they travel as well as in flight is something which we should encourage. I believe that emergency procedures are in place at most airports for dealing with in-flight emergencies. Those work well. At Heathrow Airport, for example, there is a dedicated ambulance ready to take passengers off when a pilot signals that that service is required. I understand that BAA is reviewing its facilities at airports and I am sure that it will be interested in any suggestions to improve them.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, is that any doctor travelling on a flight ought to carry a little Ambu bag containing a mask which is put over the patient's face, and you can, thereby, conduct mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with impunity? It means that if someone has a large moustache you do not get mixed up with it in the process.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am not sure that it would be prudent for me to try to intervene in what I suspect may be a professional debate between the two Benches.