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Swine flu: we are prepared

On the Politics Show, Sunday 26 April 2009, Jon Sopel interviewed the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson MP.

Health Secretary, Alan Johnson MP
Health Secretary, Alan Johnson MP

Flu Pandemic

The UK and France are the two best prepared countries in the world to deal with any flu pandemic, the UK Health Secretary has told the Politics Show.

Alan Johnson also said the Government's civil contingencies response teams - Cobra - were up and running ready to deal with any situation. He said the UK has about half a billion pounds of anti-viral drug which appears to be working in Mexico.

MPs Expenses

Ahead of a vote to put in place an interim regime to change MPs' allowances next week, Mr Johnson refused to speculate on whether the Government would win saying, "I can't give you yes or no, I don't know. I'll be going through the lobby in favour, it's a free vote for everyone else. I can't ascertain what that will be but I'll be supporting them."

Interview with: Alan Johnson, MP, Secretary of State for Health

JON SOPEL: And Alan Johnson joins us now. Welcome to the Politics Show.

ALAN JOHNSON: Thank you.

JON SOPEL: How ready are we in this country?

ALAN JOHNSON: The World Health Organization says that the UK and France are the two best prepared countries in the world and we have about half a billion pounds of the anti viral, which has worked in Mexico.

The good news from Mexico is that given anti virals like Tamiflu early enough, the people who get this recover. We've got a whole range of measures in place.

The thing that has to happen now is the World Health Organization must look and analyse this and give the analysis that shows whether there is a propensity for to spread but I think there's always a good public health message, which is people shouldn't cough over other people, they should ensure that if they do feel ill, they stay at home.

If they've got flu like systems, they stay at home, they don't go to their GP, they call NHS Direct, 0845 46 47, and I think their basic message is that we'd use for any type of flu.

JON SOPEL: Would you like to see any kind of travel restrictions imposed on either people going to Mexico or coming from Mexico to here?

ALAN JOHNSON: No. We've analyzed this a lot. As the World Health Organisation said and the Health Protection Agency said this morning. First of all it's usually futile, it doesn't work at all. Secondly of course it causes so many other problems that really that's not part of the planning.

JON SOPEL: You said, you know, you've got to examine the propensity for it to spread. I mean we've heard of cases in the United States, suspect cases in Australia and New Zealand, presumably, you're on alert for that sort of thing happening here?

ALAN JOHNSON: We are indeed. If there's any cases where people believe there was a British Airways Steward who was checked and it showed that that, that it wasn't this virus, which is H1N1. It's different to the H5N1, which was Bird Flu, this is H1N1, but that wasn't what was causing the illness so we're on constant alert but the public health messages just cannot be emphasized enough and the fact that if someone does have flu like symptoms - the whole point about these kinds of epidemics is you don't want to spread them and you spread them by going out and mixing with other people so the best thing to do is stay at home … (interjection)

JON SOPEL: Just to be clear, you've saying we already have a stockpile of the drugs that are necessary to treat this?

ALAN JOHNSON: We have a stockpile of the drugs and we have an agreement with a manufacturer, so as soon as you can work on this and scientists can work on this and find a vaccine to prevent it, Tamiflu deals with it once it's started and deals with it very effectively, we know from Mexico. But we will always look, once we know what the strain is, to produce a vaccine and we have a clear agreement for these vaccines to be produced as soon as we, the scientists can work on … (interjection ) ….

JON SOPEL: You talked about the Air Steward, are there any other suspect cases that are being looked at, at the moment.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well, this is moving very quickly and indeed the government machinery is already in place as a precautionary measure, the Cobra System, so there will be people who have flu like symptoms and have travelled from another country, who will be examined very, very quickly and I've got no doubt, as this story moves along, there will be others, there will be people in that situation at the moment. But so far, there's not been a confirmed case in the United Kingdom, or indeed in Europe. That could change very quickly.

JON SOPEL: Okay. Let's move on to some of the wider politics because we've had a Budget this week. We know that there are going to be cutbacks in some of what the National Health Service is going to be able to spend, in the rate of growth. Now, what difference are our viewers going to notice in terms of the Health Service, that they come up against on a day-to-day basis, as a result of the billions that need to be saved from the Budget.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well none. It's important, when you talk about cutbacks, what we're talking about - the rate of growth going up, 5.5% this year, 5.5% next year. The Conservatives would implement cuts in public services, they say not in health but they would introduce them this year, in the middle of a recession, which no other country in the world sensibly believes is the right thing to do. So you know, you cold lose three thousand five hundred police constables over the cuts they've made this year. For us, what we're saying, is this year, indeed we're bringing forward capital investment in the Health Service, that would have taken place in '10 '11 - this is a very important year to get us through this recession.

Next year what was announced in the budget is, we'll make a contribution to five billion pounds worth of savings across government. 1.2 billion of that was money we held in reserve and we held it in reserve because Primary Care Trusts traditionally weren't very good at balancing their books, out there in the field. Over the last three years that's been transformed, we don't need that, we've given that back and there are other savings, for instance, people spend less time in hospital now. We are focused on quality, getting it right first time and ensuring that things like non-invasive surgery and these people recover quickly, go home quickly. That's not just good for the patient and good for quality, it's also good for finance.

JON SOPEL: So over the coming years, you're able to save potentially billions out of what was originally projected, not growing as fast as originally intended, without anyone noticing any difference.

ALAN JOHNSON: Well, we aim to protect frontline services, that's the point. I mean the frontline services are crucial. We've done an awful lot in terms of back office, how you arrange procurement … (interjection) …

JON SOPEL: But the corollary of that is that if you are able to do that and protect all front line services, doesn't it rather imply that the Health Service has been run rather inefficiently until now.

ALAN JOHNSON: No. What it shows is that medical science and new technology is advancing all the time. You know, in the early '50s, the average stay in hospital was forty five days, the average stay in hospital now is coming down to around four and a half days. So if you utilize these new opportunities properly and that's what the Darzi Review was all about, and you get quality at the top of the agenda, then it actually is not just good for patients and good for quality of care, it's good for the economy as well.

JON SOPEL: And when the Tories, four years ago, proposed not growing the Health Service budget as fast as you were proposing, Gordon Brown came out and said that was the equivalent of making every Doctor, Teacher and Nurse redundant.

ALAN JOHNSON: Yeah, but there's a very important point here Jon. We are now within touching distance of the average European spend on Health, as a proportion of our national wealth. I mean we were something like 4 to 5% when we came in as a government. The Health Service was badly under funded.

JON SOPEL: Yeah. But you said - Gordon Brown, was Gordon Brown right to have said what he said four years ago about - in, during the election campaign.

ALAN JOHNSON: Yes he was right. He was right. I mean … (interjection) …

JON SOPEL: Well you're doing the same thing now.

ALAN JOHNSON: No we're not. No. I mean we've built a hundred and ten hospitals, or we would have done by 2010. You don't have to build them twice. We'll have built seven hundred and fifty new Primary Care Centres. We'll have the new equipment, we'll have the eighty thousand more nurses. We'll have the thirty thousand more doctors all in place, so the actual rate of growth that we've seen over the last ten years, was there to get us to a certain point. We're there now and sure, you know, there are economies we can make across the board but the important point is to safeguard those front line services.

JON SOPEL: I just want to talk to you about one other issue which is MPs expenses. We've done an interview with David Cameron which we're about to play, in which he says that the Gordon Brown proposals are dead. Was it wise of the Prime Minister to go on You Tube, say this is what the future is going to be, without having squared anyone beforehand?

ALAN JOHNSON: Well, yes, I think it was wise for the Prime Minister to say look, there's about six or seven different variations of replacements here. He himself asked Sir Christopher Kelly to look at this.

JON SOPEL: And now he wants to preempt it.

ALAN JOHNSON: But his conclusion is to have an interim measure; not to let this go on and on and on, it's damaging politicians and it's damaging politics and we need a solution quickly, so for the Prime Minister to try and pick this up by the scruff of the neck and say, Look, you know, there's lots of half-baked ideas - here's an interim solution that I think will work and then we'll see what Kelly says … (interjection)

JON SOPEL: I wonder if I can get a yes or no answer from you. Do you think that Gordon Brown's proposals will fly when it's voted on, on Thursday?

ALAN JOHNSON: Oh, I can't give you yes or no, I don't know. I'll be going through the lobby in favour, it's a free vote for everyone else. I can't ascertain what that will be but I'll be supporting them.

JON SOPEL: Okay, Alan Johnson, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much indeed.


Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB: These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy .

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The Politics Show Sunday 26 April 2009 at 15:00 GMT on BBC One.
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