HL Deb 16 October 2002 vol 639 cc849-51

2.42 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are making any special preparations to counter possible epidemics this winter of influenza or other illnesses.

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

My Lords, immunisation offers the best protection against flu. The influenza immunisation programme is being run again this year, offering free immunisation to everyone aged 65 and over and to people in clinical risk groups.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. However, are the Government concerned about a recently identified virus known as hMPV—its full name is long and unpronounceable—which produces symptoms similar to those of flu, but which does not respond to the influenza vaccine?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is referring to RSV. He is right in saying that it has flu-like symptoms but is not prevented by vaccine. Scientists and vaccine manufacturers are still trying to develop an effective vaccine against RSV—respiratory syncytial virus. Unfortunately, we are still some years away from achieving success.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, the Minister may be relieved to hear that I do not propose to challenge him on N1, H2 or anything else of that sort. Can he explain why the Government have chosen not to fund younger at-risk subjects; for example, those who suffer from heart disease, diabetes or asthma? They are at risk in the same way as the over-65s.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No, my Lords, it is wrong to say that we do not fund them. If GPs provide vaccines to those at-risk groups, the vaccines will be free—that is, they will be paid for by the Department of Health. The point is that in that case GPs do not receive an extra payment, as they do for older people, although they do receive a fee of approximately £1.75 for the administrative costs. We are examining this matter and shall seek to review it in the light of our current discussions on the GP contract.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the availability of special treatment is not well known to significant groups in the community? I refer, for example, to those in the minority communities and am concerned particularly about women. Will he assure the House that there is targeting to make sure that those communities are made aware of the availability of such treatment?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords. Such a campaign is presently being undertaken. My noble friend is right. If we examine performance in different parts of the country, we see huge differences. The lowest performance is in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster—where there is only a 50 per cent uptake among at-risk groups, which is disappointing. Among some parts of our community we have to redouble our efforts to get this message across.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, will the Minister make the flu vaccine available in this House for Members and staff, if they so wish, as it is difficult to obtain it here in Westminster when one's GP is out of London?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we have many responsibilities in the Department of Health, but I do not think that we go that far. That must be a matter for the House authorities, and I am sure that they would be delighted to look at it.

Lord Chan

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one measure would be the vaccination of all front-line clinical and other staff in the health service? If that is the case, to what extent is that now mandatory for NHS staff?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, taking the NHS as an example, we have made it clear that NHS employers should offer influenza immunisation to employees directly involved in patient care. We have also encouraged local authorities to do the same for social care employees. The figures that I have for last year show that an average of around 12 per cent of staff in acute hospital trusts have taken advantage of that. I find that figure disappointing and I want to encourage NHS employers to do more to encourage their employees to take advantage of the vaccination.

Earl Howe

My Lords, can the Minister confirm my understanding that the flu vaccination campaign aims to achieve a vaccination rate of at least 70 per cent among people aged 65 and over? If that is so, what additional mechanisms have Ministers put in place since last winter to ensure that the Government achieve this rate? Only very few health authorities achieved that level of coverage last winter.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, it is fair to say that with the passing of each year of the campaign the health service learns from experience. In fact, last year we reached 68 per cent of people aged 65 years and over. Obviously, we hope to build on that this autumn. We have mounted another campaign, and Sir Henry Cooper is again the figurehead for the media. That is backed up by other TV adverts and publicity material. We hope that primary care trusts, as the principal public health authority at local level, will work very closely with individual GP practices to see what they can do to encourage their patients to attend for vaccination.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, is the Minister aware that people can obtain a prescription from their doctor and then ask the nurse in this building to administer the injection?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am very glad to hear that, and I hope that noble Lords will take advantage of the provision.

Lord Elton

My Lords, why does the Minister assume that when my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy refers to hMPB he really means RSV? If there is a dangerous organism that goes under the former description will he place his answer in the Library please?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I apologise if I misheard the noble Lord. If he is referring to H1N2, which is a new subtype of flu that the Public Health Laboratory Service has detected, I am glad to inform the House that our experts consider that it is covered in the vaccine strains that we are using this year, which are A/New Caledonia, A/Moscow and B/Hong Kong.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, perhaps I may explain that the letters I mentioned stand for human metapneumovirus. I can quite understand initials being used instead of the full name.

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