Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 320-325)


Professor Brian Duerden and Professor Angus Nicoll

320. Because we are going to collect together a substantial body of institutions that in the past have been criticised politically, for one reason or another, probably quite unfairly, but now it is going to focus in on a single entity?

(Professor Duerden) But certainly two of the bodies, the National Radiological Protection Board and the PHLS, are both currently executive non-departmental public bodies, they are arm's length bodies, they have a responsibility to act in that independent way to give professional input.

Chairman: I am glad to hear it.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

321. My Lord Chairman, might I just follow up that very point. Did you not say you hoped it would be an NDPB?

(Professor Duerden) That is what is proposed. It will be a special health authority for the first year, and the intention is that there will be primary legislation during the present session to create it as an NDPB.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: It only occurred to me, My Lord Chairman, that it was something that this Committee would need to look at, that if that is a way in which one can ensure that there is some clear blue water between political judgements and the scientific judgements then this is something that we should be alert to.

Chairman: Can we move on to the last question, and you may wish to expand on this in writing, but it is to do with expanding the role beyond the borders of England and Wales and to other countries with limited resources.

Baroness Walmsley

322. The question is about co-operation with other countries. Do you think there is a benefit to England and Wales in co-operating with other countries in terms of public health response to communicable diseases, and particularly countries with limited resources? We note that you said in your evidence that the WHO is very keen to continue to be able to draw on the expertise of PHLS, and you explained that members of staff currently carry out projects, sometimes in their own time or grant-funded. So how would this best be organised in the future?

(Professor Duerden) I believe it is extremely important that we do maintain what we have at the moment and that it should be increased. It might sound trite but, of course, the microbes do not know anything about international boundaries, and with travel as easy as it is now infections have a major international perspective. And we have learned a great deal in recent years through links, we have had staff who went out from CDSC to the haemorrhagic fever, the Ebola outbreak 18 months ago; we have had a big involvement in helping to control the epidemic of diphtheria in Eastern Europe that followed from the break-up of the USSR. And not only are we providing our expertise but we are learning, this is how our staff in the UK get experience of these diseases and develop their own expertise. So it really is a two-way stream, we benefit as well. So I believe that we have to, and should, collaborate with WHO increasingly in this, and not just in providing services, we have several designated WHO collaborating centres within the PHLS, which is fine, we provide that expertise here, but we need to have the interaction with people in the field where the diseases are happening. Again, it comes back to funding and the arrangements there. The money that is allocated to the PHLS at the moment is for UK health services, UK health protection, UK public health, whichever label we want to put on it, and that has been under pressure in recent years, and it is difficult to justify diverting money from that stream of Government funding, which is for our own population, to outside the UK. We can do some, when, as I say, we learn from it and our staff get experience and we get the benefit back, but that is something we have to be aware of. The funding for external things is through DFID, and they fund outside the UK rather than funding us to do things elsewhere. And really perhaps a closer look at that sort of arrangement, to see how we can use the expertise that is available here, with funding that has an international heading on it, because if you have got experts you either need to be in-filling behind them to enable them to do some time overseas, or you train people up specifically for the overseas function. Whichever way, you need the extra capacity to be able to do that. Now I am fully committed, I would love us to do more than we can at the moment, but it is a matter of how we link the internal and the external resource.

Lord Turnberg

323. Just to follow that up, it is true, is it not, that the PHLS made strenuous efforts to get funding from both the Department of Health and DFID, unsuccessfully, by and large? What gives you any confidence that the HPA will be any better at getting that funding?

(Professor Duerden) Under present arrangements, I have no confidence that they will be any better. What I have said, I hope I chose my words reasonably carefully, is that this is what I believe should be done, but it is not that I believe it will be done, unless there is a recognition of the need for policy change.

(Professor Nicoll) I am slightly more optimistic, from having had a meeting when WHO did a mission over recently, and they met up with Sir William Stewart and with Dr Troop and others, and there was a feeling that there ought to be a fresh start and a fresh look at this. I think part of the problem is an administrative structure that DFID has got stuck with, because they do give money to the UK for people to go and to be working in developing countries, but it is all done through what I call body shops" and it is places that are given a contract to find people to fill consultancies. And we are always encouraged, Well, why don't you send somebody; why don't you either be part of a consortium for doing these consultancies, or just put people in for those consultancies?" But, as Professor Duerden says, because we are service-related, we cannot simply say, eg; Well, John Watson" (who is our TB expert) go off to Eastern Europe for a month," because we will then look a bit silly if there is a TB problem that blows up in this country and we need him back here. So that is one point. I think, the fundamental question that you ask there, the answer has to be yes, yes and yes. Our laboratories need the experience with these exotic organism when they are giving somebody else problems before they cause us problems, that is making it rather blunt, but I know that David Brown, who deals with esoteric viruses, feels a lot happier when he has been doing some work on real things. There is also some caution in that we have a lot of idealistic people who would like to go out to do this work, it is a dangerous world out there now and that is why we work particularly with the part of WHO we feel most comfortable with, David Heymann's set-up, because we know that they are taking the security issues very, very seriously. Certainly I have been reluctant and stopped people going to resource-poor countries when I have not felt that they had the experience, or, the place they were going to, their hosts were not sufficiently able to deliver their safety. So I think there has to be some caution there, because it would take only a few casualties and everyone would be feeling absolutely ghastly. You must also look at this now in two ways. There is Europe now and the larger Europe, and the big agenda for the next three, four years, in Europe, is going to be establishing the European Communicable Disease Centre function, or whatever it is called. Now we have very clear views, which maybe we ought to give to you in writing, as to what that ought to do and ought not to do, but it is one of those areas where I think there is potentially huge European added value, and we have seen some examples of that, that we mentioned in the evidence. But also there are large risks and threats coming up, especially with the accession countries. It has been only recently with this egg problem that we have realised how easy it is for food goods to move around Europe and nobody can stop them. If these eggs were coming from outside of Europe then no problem, but as they are coming inside of Europe that is difficult. And then thinking there are a lot more food products like that, that may be coming from Eastern Europe, and how are we going to deal with that? So I would be including Europe in that question, as well as looking more broadly. The final way I would answer it is that, again, through the bioterrorism and deliberate release activities, we have found that that agenda has become far more important, and we are working as closely with the Americans as they will let us in trying to make sure that there is a sort of global security network growing up. And if you make a trip to Geneva, I would encourage you to be looking at the global outbreak and response network that they are setting up, which I feel is the way to go, which is something which is not just looking at a few privileged countries but is genuinely worldwide in developing networks that can respond to bioterrorism and also to natural events.


324. On those words, I think we must bring this session to a close. If there is any point that you wish to elaborate on, especially on this last one, with a European dimension, perhaps you could put that in writing to us?

(Professor Nicoll) Yes.

325. But it just remains for me to thank you very much indeed for coming along for this fairly long and rather expansive session. You have stood up to it very well.

(Professor Nicoll) Thank you very much for making it so enjoyable and for the opportunity.

(Professor Duerden) Thank you very much.

Chairman: Thank you, indeed.

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