HL Deb 10 April 2003 vol 647 cc338-41

11.16 a.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

What advice they are issuing and what measures they are taking to contain the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the Department of Health issued information and advice to all general practitioners, trusts and public health professionals on Thursday 13th March and Monday 7th April. The department also issued advice to the public and travellers to south east Asia about SARS. As a result of this timely response, to date we have had only five probable cases of SARS in the UK against a total of 2,722 in 16 other countries. The Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency continue to monitor the situation.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that Answer, might I ask for her assessment of reports in today's newspapers that the Government of China have concealed the extent of the spread of SARS in China, and, indeed, the evidence given to a select committee of the Senate on Monday by the World Health Organisation that the outbreak might have been curbed much more quickly had they acted earlier? Are the Government any nearer to identifying the nature of the virus; what is the latest science on the spread of the virus; are they giving any consideration, as in America, to the quarantine issue; and, on the issue of health workers, given the large number who have died in Hong Kong, have they given advice to health workers in this country?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I shall answer what I think are the two most critical questions here—first, the attitude of the Chinese Government to the spread of the disease; and, secondly, what the research tells us. The Chinese Government came under some strong criticism from the WHO but are now co-operating. An expert WHO team has visited Beijing and Guandong to conduct research. We expect a report from it. It has met the officials, the researchers, and so on, who are involved. The Chinese ministry of health has introduced tighter controls and procedures now in order to control the outbreak. There is a central task force being set up to monitor it. Obviously, we still maintain our advice to travellers that they should not travel to the two areas of Hong Kong and Guandong if at all possible.

On our current information about research, the WHO has co-ordinated research across the world in public health laboratories, including our own very expert Central Public Health Laboratory at Colindale. It suggests that the SARS associated coronavirus is probably the major cause, but that there are other infections which may play a part. These discoveries are very positive. We are proud that our own public health laboratory has played a key role. This will now enable work to be developed on tests to detect the presence of the viruses in patients. So we are now at the next stage where we can begin to develop the diagnostic tests which will help us to determine the actual SARS virus itself.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister recall that she set out very clearly, at col. 643 of the Official Report of 25th March the detailed reply about how people were informed? I understand that that is working very well. But is she aware that air flights are one of the major forms of transmission of this disease? Through the World Health Organisation, can we ask airlines to ensure better recirculation and filtration of air because any infection is transmitted very easily in this way?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, perhaps I may first address the question of transmission. As far as we know, the disease is transmitted by coughing and sneezing. I take the point about recirculation. The WHO has issued guidance to reinforce general procedures; it has not addressed that issue to date. On the question of people entering the country, environmental health officials are boarding incoming aircraft from infected areas at Heathrow on a random basis to check with cabin crew whether they are aware of anyone who may present symptoms of SARS. We hope that that will work well. We are also in the process of issuing leaflets that will be available at ports of entry.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, early reports from the Far East suggested that the agent responsible for the syndrome might be a paramyxovirus but, as the noble Baroness said, the most recent research suggests that it is a coronavirus. From the research carried out to date, does the Minister have any information as to whether the agent is responsive or sensitive to antiviral agents and whether there is any prospect in the foreseeable future of producing an effective vaccine?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, not being a microbiologist, I do not know much about the virus itself, but I know that we have only five probable cases in the country. Three have recovered and gone home; two are in hospital in a stable condition. Those patients have been treated empirically with antibiotics and antiviral agents; they are also being supportively nursed, as noble Lords would expect, to protect their general recovery. We shall have to wait until we are a little further down the road of research for information about a potential vaccine.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that of 112 suspected cases in Taiwan, 17 have been definitely confirmed as suffering from SARS? Taking up the point about the World Health Organisation, what does my noble friend have to say about the fact that Taiwan, having notified the WHO about the outbreak on 14th March, has now heard that the WHO has absolutely declined to offer any assistance to Taiwan because of possible objections from the People's Republic of China? As a consequence, one young boy who entered Taiwan from Vietnam had to be flown to the United States for treatment. Does not my noble friend think that an extraordinary way in which to tackle a serious disease?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, it is probably outside my brief to comment on international diplomacy and relations between China and Taiwan, but what I would say is that the Foreign Office has advised that all travellers to Taiwan should be aware of the current situation as cases of SARS continue to increase, of the fact that they may be screened prior to air travel, and of the symptoms of SARS. We are doing all we can to keep people alert and well-informed.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, what advice is given to travellers to other places, such as the United States, where there have also been incidences of the virus, about steps they can take to protect themselves from transmission?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, so far as I am aware, we have not issued any such advice to travellers to the US. We have issued advice to travellers to Toronto in Canada where there has been a specific and traceable outbreak.

Earl Howe

My Lords, if a suspected carrier of SARS arrives in the UK, is it not essential for the authorities to be able to quarantine that person? Will the Government take powers under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to make SARS officially notifiable, so that it would be possible to detain those suspected of having SARS? If they do not intend to do so, why not?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, as I have explained, the normal health procedures are in place and are working well to identify people who are travelling on aircraft. The pilot radios ahead and all necessary steps are taken. We are not yet at the stage where quarantine is necessary. Our public health surveillance systems are working well—as I said, we have had only five probable cases—and we will be monitoring the situation. We will clearly take appropriate action, should that be necessary.

Lord Chan

My Lords—

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we are now in the 24th minute. In fairness to the last questioner, we should move on.