HL Deb 16 November 2000 vol 619 cc346-8

3.28 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

What confidence they have that an adequate supply of anti-flu vaccine will be available to the National Health Service by the end of November.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, by the end of November we expect all of the nearly 11 million doses ordered to have been delivered. This is enough to exceed our target of a 60 per cent uptake in people aged 65 and over and achieve a substantial rise in uptake among those at risk.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that somewhat optimistic assessment of future supplies. Given that there were supply difficulties early on, can the Minister confirm that the shortage of vaccine has been caused by Ministers failing to tell the vaccine companies of the extension of the programme for the over-65s in time to boost production?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not accept that that is the true position. We very much regret the problems in deliveries. However, my understanding is that the problem was caused by one manufacturer, Solvay. That company encountered problems in growing a strain of the vaccine which led to delay in some deliveries. We hope that by the end of this month most of the problems will have been overcome. The latest evidence I have to hand is that by the end of October we had achieved 46 per cent, which is well on the way to the target of 60 per cent.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, the Minister blamed a particular drug company for failure to satisfy demand for the vaccine. However, will not 11 million doses still be inadequate to meet public demand and did not the Government order the vaccines far too late this year? Will the Minister undertake next year to review the dosage as a matter of urgency and ensure that supplies are ordered early in the year as opposed to in May, as was the case this year?

Lord. Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, each year in which we develop the flu vaccine programme we need to review its success and any problems which arise. Noble Lords will be aware that the 60 per cent target which we accepted for this year was based on a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. That is an independent statutory committee on which we rely for advice.

I regret that there have been shortages in some GPs' surgeries, but I am satisfied that that will be put right by the end of the month. I am also satisfied that the campaign is leading to a good take-up.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Minister says that supplies will be available. Has he spoken to any GPs about the problem? Is he aware that they are concerned that many of the vulnerable people who visited their GPs in October but were unable to have the vaccine will not return to the surgeries? Some GPs have been promised a bonus if they succeed in giving the vaccine to 60 per cent of the target group. However, as some people will not return to receive the vaccine, there is no way in which the target can be met. Is the department examining that issue?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have spoken to a number of practitioners about the issues facing them in relation to the flu vaccine. It is a matter of regret if members of the public visited GPs' surgeries but were unable to receive the vaccine. However, I believe that through the effective communications GPs have with their patients, and through the general campaigns which we have been running, those who were not successful first time round will be encouraged to return and receive the vaccination.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, as there appears to be time, I want to ask the Minister another question. When the matter was discussed after the last flu epidemic at the beginning of this year, it was suggested that the vaccine might be available to everyone working in hospitals and NHS services because many of them were suffering from flu and unable to nurse others. Has anything been done about that this year? If not, can something be clone next year?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to tell the noble Baroness that we took that suggestion to heart. We made it clear to all NHS employers that they had to offer immunisation to all staff involved in the delivery of care or support to patients.

Alongside that, social service employers were also asked to consider offering immunisation to all staff involved. That is taking place and a considerable number of NHS and social service staff affected are taking advantage of the flu vaccine. This is the first year in which we have made such a concerted attempt and we shall monitor the success in uptake in order to see what lessons can be learnt. However, I am satisfied that this year we are better prepared in relation to the flu vaccine than has ever been the case.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will be able to broaden my knowledge. I understand that there are different types of flu. How do the Government or anyone else know which vaccine to produce?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, intelligence about flu is obtained from a variety of sources, including the World Health Organisation. The flu vaccines currently contain versions of three flu viruses: Influenza A(H3N2), Influenza A(H1N1), and Influenza B. Arising from that, this year's recommended vaccine strains are an A/Moscow/1099- like strain; an A/New Caledonia/20/99-like strain; and a B/Beijing/184/93-like strain.