HC Deb 18 June 1974 vol 875 cc97-9W
Mr. Arthur Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if she can now publish the report of the committee of inquiry into the smallpox outbreak in London in 1973; and if she will make a statement.

Mrs. Castle

Yes. The report is published today as a Command Paper (Cmnd. 5626).

My predecessor appointed Mr. P. J. Cox, QC, Professor K. McCarthy and Dr. E. L. M. Millar to be a committee under Section 70 of the National Health Service Act 1946 to hold an inquiry into the origin of the outbreak of smallpox in London in March and April 1973 and the steps consequential upon that outbreak.

The circumstances leading to the committee's appointment were that a graduate laboratory technician employed at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was admitted to St. Mary's Hospital, Harrow Road on 16th March 1973 suffering from suspected meningitis or glandular fever. As there was no suspicion that she might be suffering from a pox virus infection she was admitted to an open ward where she came in contact not only with other patients in the ward but with two visitors, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hurley, who subsequently contracted smallpox and tragically died.

As the committee rightly points cut there was serious public disquiet that a laboratory worker could become infected with smallpox when working in a laboratory, and having become so infected could be admitted to and remain in the general ward for a week suffering from the disease undiagnosed and that even after a provisional diagnosis of smallpox had been made a further 12 days elapsed before Mr. and Mrs. Hurley were traced as contacts".

In its report the committee draws attention to the inadequacy of safety precautions at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and to deficiencies in the arrangements made for controlling this outbreak.

The Government are very grateful to the committee for its painstaking and thorough examination of this most unfortunate sequence of events and I am glad to tell the House that the Government accept in principle the committee's main recommendations and have either given effect or are taking steps to give effect to them as a matter of urgency.

First, because of the public health interest in the circumstances of the outbreak copies of the report are being sent to all those authorities which were involved in the particular outbreak. I am also sending copies to other authorities with responsibilities in these fields, drawing their attention to the committee's recommendations on the handling of smallpox and other dangerous pathogens. I am also arranging for the preparation of a revised version of the Memorandum on the Control of Outbreaks of Smallpox.

I understand that the University Grants Committee is sending copies of the committee's report to universities and that the University of London will be issuing a statement today on behalf of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to the effect that a safety officer has been appointed in accordance with the committee's recommendations. The other measures recommended by the committee in respect of the London School will require further consideration.

My predecessor also appointed in consultation with his colleagues a working party, chaired by the former Chief Medical Officer of my Department, with the following terms of reference: to consider whether there are organisms capable of causing communicable diseases that require measures to be taken in laboratories or elsewhere additional to those now recommended in order to prevent infection in man or in animals and to make recommendations as to the measures required".

The field of work of this working party is obviously related to the report of the smallpox inquiry since smallpox is one of the dangerous pathogens involved. But it covers a wider field since it is concerned with the animal world and its main interest is in the safe handling of pathogenic materials held in laboratories. I have received an interim report from the working party written in the knowledge of the recommendations of the smallpox inquiry which recommends the establishment of arrangements for receiving on a voluntary and confidential basis reports from laboratories which are working on a limited number of particularly dangerous materials and advising them on the desirability or otherwise of continuing the work or of improving the conditions under which it is done. Any group set up for the purpose would also consider such questions as importation and transport of this pathogenic material.

The Government welcome the proposal and are inviting the working party working with officials to work out the detailed arrangements. I welcome also the working party's offer to provide the nucleus of any expert groups set up for this purpose. I shall make a further announcement when the arrangements are made.