Andrew Lansley, Shadow Secretary of State for Health: "Over the weekend, conflicting advice was issued to expectant mothers. Consistent and accurate advice is paramount in a situation in which we are trying to maintain public confidence, so can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to ensure that the chief medical officer liaises with the royal colleges and other associations to achieve consistency and clarity of advice to the public?
An interim solution for the national pandemic flu line is to be put in place. We know that the Treasury delayed until December signing the contract for a full solution with BT. Even so, this March, the Secretary of State’s Department said that it could be available by April or May. It should, according to the plan, have been activated in mid-June, when the pandemic alert was declared, but it was not. To that extent, it is a month late. It is clear that much of the confusion that we have seen in that month could have been avoided if the Government had delivered the pandemic flu line on time. BT says that it did all that was asked of it. Who and what caused the delay?
…We know that the UK has the smallest number of critical care beds in relation to population of any major health system. May I ask the Secretary of State again what criteria he thinks should be applied to the cancellation of elective operations, and what plans the Government have to train additional NHS staff in the use of non-invasive ventilatory support?"
Andy Burnham MP, Health Secretary: "The hon. Gentleman asked me about the advice for pregnant mothers, which he said was confusing. Let me say again that our advice has not changed. I cannot make that clear enough. The front page of a newspaper stated that one voluntary body had said that people should not plan for a pregnancy—should postpone pregnancy, in effect—and there was a response to that from the Royal College of General Practitioners. I would be grateful if he would listen to this point: comment has been made on the advice prepared a long time ago for H5N1, bird flu, which, as I think he knows, would have been a more serious virus. It is important that care is taken to ensure that the statements that are made relate to the current advice. As I say, that advice has not changed.
The Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have played a superb role over the past few weeks, and I am sure that they will continue to do so. Both organisations have given clear advice today and in the past week, and of course we will continue to liaise with them to ensure that they can continue to play that role.
The hon. Gentleman said that the national pandemic flu service was “a month late”, and asked who had caused the delays. This brings us to the heart of some of the information that the Liberal Democrats were putting out this weekend. I am afraid that they were trying to score a political point when none was justified. As I have explained, when I came into the Department, the clear advice to me was that it would be justified to stand up a new national network—with all the resource, energy and time that that would take—when we had simultaneous outbreaks in many parts of the country and there was not only pressure in two or three places but more sustained pressure across the country.
I want to refer the hon. Gentleman back to the numbers that I quoted in my statement. I will read them to him again, because they illuminate this point. I said: “On 8 July, just six primary care trusts reported exceptional levels of flu-like illness.” One week later, that figure had increased to 110. On that day, 15 July, I took the decision—which was endorsed by Cobra—to activate the national pandemic flu service. We could have done it earlier, had the circumstances justified that. I have been clear since I came into the Department that the service could have been activated, should that have proved necessary. The change in the facts on the ground last week justified the activation of the service, and I do not believe that it is right to build a story about long delays and infighting. That has not been the case, and the decision was not technology-driven; it was driven by pressure on the ground."