HL Deb 27 November 2002 vol 641 cc747-9

3 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking following the reported death from rabies of an animal welfare worker in Scotland.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, following the tragic death of a 55 year-old male from rabies, a review of the procedures for handling such rabies cases and of the implications for public health has been put in place. The advice of an expert group of the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens on the assessment of the risks to health is also being sought.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply. David McRae's tragic death is, I understand, the first recorded death in this country for more than 100 years as the result of a bite from an animal infected with the rabies virus. Does the Minister have any idea how the rabies virus came to be in a Daubenton's bat in Tayside? I understand that last month a case was recorded in which the same virus was present in a hat in Lancashire. Should there not be a comprehensive survey of all species of bat to establish the degree of infection and how it is spreading? Finally, given that hats are a protected species and that people are required to be licensed to work with them, should it not be a mandatory part of licence approval that such workers are vaccinated against the virus infection? What are the implications of those cases for our rabies-free status in the United Kingdom?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, there are no implications as such for our status because the status does not relate to the particular virus affecting bats; it relates to the classic category of viruses affecting dogs and cats. There can be no room for complacency. I agree with the noble Lord that we need to step up our surveillance. DEFRA is planning to conduct a survey on live bats next year. Originally, it was going to be concentrated in the South of England but, in light of the incidents in Lancashire and Scotland, officials are now considering ways of extending that survey.

On the issue of licence holders, I very much agree with the noble Lord's sentiments. My understanding is that that is under review by the body that issues licences in Scotland. In England, the body concerned has moved to make it mandatory.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the bat population on the increase? Is it not difficult to conduct a survey when bats fly back and forth from other European countries?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my understanding is that the population of bats is estimated—it has to be an estimate—to be about 2.5 million to 3 million. It is a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. We need to establish whether we can find out more about the habits of the bat. On migration, bats may be able to fly across the Channel, and they have been found on oil rigs and put into quarantine. It is possible that they could land on a ferry coming into this country. There are a number of avenues by which bats could come from other countries to this country.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, we are dealing with the European bat lyssavirus. Some noble Lords will no doubt use that to fuel their suspicions about all things European being undesirable and rather nasty. We all very much sympathise with David McRae and his friends and family. Is it not the case that this is the first instance in the past 100 years in which anyone has caught this virus? The testing of hats has been taking place over the past 15 years, and out of 3,000 tests only two hats have been found to possess the virus. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the Government will do all that they can to dampen down any hue and cry about bats in the popular press? Bats are a protected species. They are not, by and large, a danger to human beings. Will the Government tell us what they are doing to ensure that local authorities and other local organisations know what advice to give and where to send people for advice if they ring up and say that they have found bats in their belfry, attic or wherever?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, so far as advice is concerned, there is information, as ever, on the DoH website. The Public Health Laboratory Service also has advice. I would also recommend persons concerned to contact the Bat Conservation Trust. I agree with that sentiment. The risk to the general public is very low. A vaccination is available. If anyone is bitten by a bat they should seek immediate advice from their general practitioner. However, we should keep this issue in a certain degree of proportion.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I live within seven miles of Guthrie, where this unfortunate man was bitten. The farm buildings by my house are full of several hundred bats. There is nothing that we can do about that. I do not know what type they are. A number come into my house every summer and I have to pick them up and put them out of the window. I hope that the Minister will tell me two things. First, does he know whether a leather glove is adequate protection when one does that? I believe that our neighbours should be glad to know. Secondly, does he know whether the sheep and cattle in our agricultural area are safe from this particular infection from bats?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my advice is that cross-species infection is extremely unlikely in the case of a particular virus affecting bats, although one could not absolutely rule it out. On the bats in the noble Baroness's sheds and belfries, I advise her to wear protective gloves. I shall seek advice and write to her about whether her garden gloves are sufficiently strong; I should imagine that they are. If she were bitten by a bat, she should immediately clean the wound with soap and water. Additional cleansing of the wound site with an alcohol base or other disinfectant is also recommended to the noble Baroness. She should then go and see her general practitioner.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords—

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is too late for more bats. We must move on.