HC Deb 22 June 1966 vol 730 cc581-4

Mr. Abse (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Health whether he is aware of the public concern at the outbreak of smallpox in Pontypool; what action is being taken to trace the contacts of those who have fallen ill; and whether he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Charles Loughlin)

Yes, Sir. The Medical Officer of Health has arranged for the investigation of all cases of illness ocurring in the affected school and for the vaccination and surveillance of all school and household contacts. Twelve cases have been reported from Pontypool, three of whom have already recovered. The illnesses have been mild and very little different in severity from chickenpox of which also there have been cases in this area.

Mr. Abse

I thank my hon. Friend for his reassurances. May I take this opportunity of expressing, on behalf of the House, our sympathy at the tragic bereavement?[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

In view of the concern in South Wales, what steps are being taken to improve the isolation hospital facilities which, once again now, are being stretched as a result of this outbreak?

Mr. Loughlin

All possible steps are being taken. As regards the isolation hospital, my hon. Friend will recognise that the Penrhys Hospital is used solely as an isolation hospital. The Welsh Hospital Board has now decided upon another and better hospital. Certain discussions are having to take place, and I cannot go further at this stage.

Mr. G. Elfed Davies

Is my hon. Friend aware that the report of the inquiry into the smallpox outbreak in South Wales in 1962, published by his Department, condemned the Penrhys Hospital as totally unsuited to this purpose, and that the people of the Rhondda, while they are warmhearted and generous, feel that four years is long enough to have done something to prevent this hospital being used again for this purpose? Further, is he aware that the driver of the ambulance taking one of the first cases in this new outbreak to hospital stopped in Porth to inquire——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot have a speech on a supplementary question. It must be brief.

Mr. Davies

Is my hon. Friend aware that the ambulance driver stopped to inquire his way to the hospital? Does he think that that is a fit way to conduct cases of this kind?

Mr. Loughlin

It is true that there are deficiencies in the Penrhys Hospital, but I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that, in trying to find an alternative isolation hospital, there are difficulties and a lot of discussions have to take place. As I have said, we have now decided on a particular hospital. I give him the assurance that we shall proceed with this as quickly as we possibly can.

As regards the ambulance driver having to stop, although I accept that there is some small danger of contamination, I can only say that we have issued guidance to all concerned that this should not happen, and we shall do whatever we possibly can to ensure that full directions are given to ambulance controls to see that it does not occur again.

Mr. Gower

What knowledge has the Minister of the origin of this outbreak, and are any steps being taken by his Department in Wales in case there may be some spread into other parts of the Principality?

Mr. Loughlin

The origin of the outbreak is completely unknown. As far as we can ascertain, it has no connection whatever with any other outbreak in any part of the country. As regards the taking of steps to check any possible contamination in other areas, the usual notices and warnings have been issued to all medical officers of health so that they can be very quick to ensure that any possible cases are detected.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

Is not this particular type of disease known as variola minor? Second, in order to relieve any possible disquiet in other places in South Wales, can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that there has so far been no sign of this disease appearing in those places?

Mr. Loughlin

This is variola minor. I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, because "smallpox" is a very emotive term and I would like to assure parents that there is not anything like the danger with variola minor as there is with smallpox.

On the second point, as far as we know there are no other cases in other parts of Wales.

Mr. Probert

Is my hon. Friend aware that, because of the total inadequacy of accommodation to meet this contingency, a geriatric hospital in my constituency had to be vacated, at great inconvenience to its patients?

Mr. Loughlin

I would like notice of that. I was not aware of it. I shall look into it to see what I can do.

Miss Pike

As the Minister has said that he has no knowledge of the origin of this outbreak of smallpox, will he assure the House that he is investigating the matter and that the health checks at the ports are being watched to make certain that smallpox is not being brought into this country?

Mr. Loughlin

The health checks at ports are being watched very carefully. We do not know how this outbreak arose. I assure the hon. Lady that, as soon as it was notified, both my right hon. Friend and I went into the question carefully to see whether we could ascertain precisely where the contamination began. She may rest assured that we are watching it very closely indeed.