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Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Sunday, 1 November 2009

Swine flu vaccines already out

On Sunday 1 November Andrew Marr interviewed Sir Liam Donaldson.

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

ANDREW MARR:

Sir Liam Donaldson

The Department of Health's confirmed that many people considered to be at high risk from swine flu may not get their vaccinations until mid-December. Meanwhile, the number of deaths from the virus rose to 137 last week and the number of infections has soared. The government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has warned that we are seeing a level of serious illness in hospitals, which has easily surpassed the level we saw in July. And Sir Liam joins me now.

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Good morning.

ANDREW MARR:

Thank you very much indeed. I suppose the first thing that I should ask you for is really just to sort of sitrep on what's happening in this country at the moment because, as I understand it, it's also the level … the seriousness of the infections found in hospitals that's worrying you.

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

It is. It's increased over the last few weeks in the way that we would have expected, but not to an explosive extent. It's increasing with a slow burn, as I've described it. But what we are seeing is whilst most people generally get a mild illness, a small proportion of people are getting very serious illnesses. It's taking them into hospital and a small proportion are dying. So the good thing about the situation at the moment is that we're getting a bit of breathing space with the relatively slow increase in cases to be able to get the vaccine in place.

ANDREW MARR:

Still 50%, as I understand it. It's quite a, quite a jump.

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Yes, but in a full going pandemic, you'd expect to see doubling week on week. We're not seeing that yet. But, as you say, the concern is for the other end of the spectrum where people are getting serious infections.

ANDREW MARR:

For the people who are most at risk, a lot of them are not going to get vaccinations until the middle of December, so a month and a half away still. That's not very good news, is it?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well we are actually putting vaccine out at the moment. The deliveries to general practitioners started last week, so people in the priority groups will start to get their vaccine over the next few weeks. We won't finish that programme (because it's nine million people in total to be vaccinated) until the end of November, early December, but we're in a good position. Never before in a pandemic have we had a vaccine that can be put in place while the thing is ongoing, and we are in that position now, so that's a very positive side of all of this.

ANDREW MARR:

And what about the report this morning that under-18s are going to be vaccinated generally for this?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well we're looking about what to do next when we have enough vaccine to extend it beyond the priority groups, and we haven't come to any final decisions about that yet.

ANDREW MARR:

Is there enough vaccine?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

There will be enough vaccine for everybody in the population, and the fact that we can now give one dose rather than two doses, which was what was originally anticipated, means that we can make the vaccine go further.

ANDREW MARR:

And is the NHS generally under serious pressure over this now?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well we're seeing the general practitioner services I think not under a great deal of pressure at the moment, and we also have this alternative route of access through the Internet and through the telephone lines to let people be assessed and get antivirals. So that side of things is looking good. But on the hospital side, the incentive care beds are under a lot of pressure. We have plans to expand them, but that's the concern at the moment - the serious end of the spectrum: the hospitalised patients.

ANDREW MARR:

And is there anything about this that is unexpected from your point of view? You said way back that there'd be an increase around this time of year. There's an increase around this time of year. It's the number of deaths that's worrying. Is that right?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well actually the absolute number of deaths is relatively small compared to previous pandemics, but the thing that we need to bear in mind is that we do have the potential to reduce those deaths with a vaccine which we've never had in the past. So we're in a 21st century handling plan in that we can actually do something about this. In past pandemics, we've just had to let it wash over us and accept the number of deaths that flu throws up. We don't have to do that this time.

ANDREW MARR:

And yet you would expect things to get worse before better?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

I think that things … As we go into the flu season, we're going to see more cases and probably more serious illnesses. But at the same time, every day that goes by, more people will be getting the vaccination.

ANDREW MARR:

Alright. Can I ask you about another story? David Nutt, an adviser, a scientist, says that cannabis and other drugs are actually less dangerous than smoking and drinking. Was he right? I mean you're the Chief Medical Officer. You must have a view?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well these areas of risk and assessing the scientific basis are very complex, and it's a matter in my experience of balancing three things: first of all, the science; secondly what you do about the science - the policy; and then thirdly, the most difficult of all, how you communicate that to the public in a way that carries the public with you in what you want to do. Getting that balance right is quite difficult.

ANDREW MARR:

So whether or not he got his words right and expressed himself well, that's for other people to decide. But actually on the meat of the matter, was he right?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well I think, I haven't seen the latest evidence that came from that Committee. I've been busy with Swine Flu and it went to the Home Office but I think generally speaking we have to look at risk not purely in comparative terms, comparisons…

ANDREW MARR:

…Sorry I have to press you one more time, you're the Chief Medical Officer, I mean generally speaking are these drugs less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol, which are the ones, the drugs we've become familiar with as a society?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON: I think we cannot just look at it comparatively, I think each of these risks are risks in their own right, you have to deal with alcohol and tobacco which are serious risks but you also have to deal with drugs which are serious risks, and making broad bases comparisons isn't particularly helpful in guiding policy.

ANDREW MARR:

As an independent adviser yourself, albeit a sure-footed one, if I may say so, are you happy with the idea that advisers are just got rid of when they give the wrong advice?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well I think to find yourself in a situation like this is very controversial. These things are best sorted out behind the scenes, so that the government and their advisers can go to the public with a united front.

ANDREW MARR:

And, briefly, if there's more resignations from this committee, that would be very bad news, wouldn't it?

SIR LIAM DONALDSON:

Well I don't know that that's going to happen, but yes.

ANDREW MARR:

Alright. Sir Liam, thank you very much indeed.

INTERVIEW ENDS




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