HL Deb 26 October 2004 vol 665 cc1173-5

3.10 p.m.

Lord Naseby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the current situation regarding the supply of influenza vaccines for the "at risk" population.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, the Department of Health has worked with suppliers to ensure that there is sufficient stock of influenza vaccine to meet the needs of the "at risk" population. Contingency stock, purchased by the department, has been made available to GP surgeries to meet any immediate shortfall.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. It is all very well, but what happened to the risk strategy and the business continuity plan? Supplies are not available at all GP surgeries at the moment. Is it not a sad fact that unless the "at risk" population receive their jabs before 1 November, patients will undoubtedly suffer as a result, some of whom may sadly die? Is it not a shabby response from the Government that there was not a risk strategy for the problems that we currently face?

Lord Warner

My Lords, if I may say so in the vernacular, that is absolute nonsense. The Government made sure that there were around 14 million doses of flu vaccine available for this year—despite the problems in the Speke factory, which are well known—compared with 12 million administered last year. As of last week, just under 13 million doses have been distributed. The Government recommend that the flu vaccine is given from September to November before flu starts to circulate. We believe that all GP practices will have delivery of flu vaccines by the week commencing 8 November. This gives time to ensure that clinics can be set up to immunise individuals before the end of the month.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is not this an occasion when the Department of Health should be congratulated on keeping its eggs in many baskets rather than in only two as the United States Government have done?

Lord Warner

Yes, my Lords.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain who is at risk and who, therefore, is not at risk?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I do not know the diagnosis of the noble Earl but the Government have identified the "at risk" groups for some time. The "at risk" groups entitled to receive free flu jabs are those aged 65 or over; those who have a serious illness, including chronic heart conditions, chronic respiratory conditions, including asthma, chronic kidney disease, diabetes or lowered immunity; and those receiving long-stay residential home care of one kind or another.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the World Health Organisation has stated that a very dangerous type of chicken flu may appear at any moment? Are we prepared for this, especially in regard to those at risk?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the Government take account of the information provided each year by the World Health Organisation about particular flu strains that may be in circulation, as do other countries. We tend to get our flu following the southern hemisphere winter. This year we have ensured that the flu vaccine available takes account of last year's strain, Fujiian flu, and we hope that this will be appropriate for this year's flu when it comes.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, what guidance has the Department of Health given to GPs who have had to cancel flu clinics because of a lack of vaccine stocks? Has it informed them about alternative sources of flu vaccine stocks? Will the pilot programme to inoculate carers of vulnerable people still go ahead even though there is a shortage of vaccine?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I hoped I had made it clear from the figures that I gave earlier that there is not a shortage of vaccine. There has been a small delay—which I acknowledged—because of events in the Speke factory. We are well on target for making this information available. I shall look into the pilot study to which the noble Baroness referred and write to her. The department wrote to all flu immunisation co-ordinators in England on 28 September, 5 October and 21 October asking them to ensure that all GP surgeries in their areas were aware of the issue and giving details of how and where additional stocks of vaccine could be sourced.

Lord Chan

My Lords, what are the Government doing to encourage NHS members of staff to have influenza immunisation? How does this compare with immunisation given in past years?

Lord Warner

My Lords, immunisation of front-line health and social care staff has been recommended in the UK since 2000–01. Uptake in acute trusts last year was 14 per cent overall, up from earlier years. We are continuing to work with a number of trusts to ensure that immunisation levels among NHS staff are higher than they have been in the past.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, should not the high-risk groups include those people who live in the immediate vicinity of cancer patients with low neutropaenic counts?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the "at risk" groups are the result of a good deal of research, cost/benefit analysis and extensive consultation with experts in this area. I shall certainly look into the point raised by my noble friend and write to him.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, what is the Government's policy with regard to the immunisation of juries?

Lord Warner

My Lords, we assume that juries consist of mature adults who can make their own judgments in these matters.

Earl Howe

My Lords, is the Government's assumption that they will have enough flu vaccine based on the premise that the influenza season might start later than normal?

Lord Warner

No, my Lords. We know as a fact that last year about 12 million flu jabs were administered. We have organised ourselves to have available 14 million doses for this year, a buffer of 2 million doses. We know that we have distributed about 13 million doses. This provides for some improved take-up, either by NHS staff or the "at risk" groups.

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