HL Deb 20 November 2002 vol 641 cc375-8

3.6 p.m.

Earl Howe

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the National Health Service is adequately prepared to cope with terrorist attacks or disasters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the NHS has long experience of having to deal with the consequences of terrorism and major incidents. As the National Audit Office has acknowledged, since September 11th 2001 NHS preparations have been stepped up to ensure that we are as prepared as far as we can be in responding to a range of possible new threats, such as the deliberate release of chemical or biological agents. But there is no room for complacency and we have implemented a vigorous programme of action with the NHS to ensure that it makes the right preparations.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the NAO report published last week painted a far-from-rosy picture of the extent to which acute hospitals and ambulance trusts, especially in London, are prepared for a major radioactive or biological incident? What steps are being taken to improve the training of key staff in the health service? In particular, what is being done to ensure the availability of the relevant equipment where it may be needed?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we take the NAO report very seriously and I can assure the noble Earl that we will be acting upon it. It is worth saying that the NHS has traditionally been very good at instant planning and coping with major disasters. But, as I said, clearly there can be no room for complacency. The NHS, like many healthcare systems throughout the world, must now face up to a major and testing challenge.

I do not believe that the assessment which the NAO reported was a self-assessment. It is not surprising that a number of NHS trusts and health authorities were cautious in terms of saying how well they are prepared. But of course we are working carefully with them to ensure that they are prepared as fully as possible. The training of personnel is a key element. Initial interim equipment was issued as soon as possible. By the end of this calendar year, equipment will be allocated to all appropriate staff who require it.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, in NHS disaster and emergency planning, it is clearly vital to ensure that we have the expert laboratories that we need to analyse, monitor and prevent biological and chemical threats. Will not the department's plans to dismember the Public Health Laboratory Service severely affect our ability to respond to disaster? Is it not high time that the Government rethought their plans?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord. The purpose of creating a health protection agency is to bring together core services. The HPA will have a major role to play in employing regional health emergency planning advisers to ensure that the NHS response is effective. Those arrangements currently rest with a number of different bodies. Creating the HPA will mean a much more cohesive and co-ordinated approach.

Lord Chan

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the NHS has been preparing for emergencies and disasters on a regional basis, not only within that organisation itself but with other agencies such as the police, the fire service and the Army? Does the Minister further agree that there is need to train all personnel in how to handle disasters in a multi-ethnic situation? Is he aware that in the North West we are about to produce a CD-ROM containing information for NHS and other personnel on how to handle disasters in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic situation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I was glad to hear of the initiative being taken in the North West. One recommendation of the NAO report is that the Department of Health should be more proactive in ensuring the circulation of good practice to the health service. That is an example of good practice which we can make known to the rest of the NHS.

As regards collaboration, I fully agree. We are not talking about the NHS acting in isolation. It works closely with other statutory bodies. There are good working relationships. The Department of Health and the NHS are working at international level to ensure that we share ideas and approaches across the world.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most important considerations for terrorists is to try to do as much damage to public morale as possible? Is he ensuring that, in the preparations for the material action that might be taken in the NHS, particular consideration is given to how the media are handled in any such situation? We have had evidence recently of the Government's problem in this respect. I hope that there is clear guidance to individual general managers or others as to how they should handle such situations.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Lord's comments. The NAO recommended that advice should be given to all NHS organisations about how they handle communications with the media. It makes the important point that, particularly at local level, the different organisations—the NHS, the police, the fire service and local authorities—need to handle this together so that a coordinated message goes out to the public. We shall be taking that forward and issuing guidance and advice to the NHS.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that more and more patients who are very ill are coming to accident and emergency departments? What is the reason for that? If there is an emergency or a disaster, will there be enough beds to cope with the extra people?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to point to the pressure faced by some A&E departments. The short answer is that no one is certain as to why there has been an increase in the number of patients coming through A&E departments. I suspect that it is due to a combination of reasons, including demographic factors. A number of initiatives are taking place in the NHS which are improving the way in which patients are dealt with in A&E departments. As regards capacity, last year saw the first increase for many years in the numbers of general and acute beds. We are working very hard to increase capacity.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, who in Whitehall is responsible for co-ordinating and dealing with a national response to disaster planning? When did a committee last meet to discuss these matters?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not know. There is a cross-government committee which meets on a regular basis. I cannot give the noble Baroness the precise time and date of its last meeting, but its membership embraces all the relevant government departments. So far as concerns the Department of Health, we have a clear line of accountability from the department down to various parts of the National Health Service.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was in touch with his office some weeks ago to ask what preparations had been made with regard to the provision of, for example, smallpox vaccine to large organisations and institutions such as boarding schools? I have yet to receive a reply.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness has not received a reply. I shall make sure that a reply is sent as soon as possible.