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Openness and transparency: the cure to all our vaccine ills

The British Medical Association claims we are now over the worst of the swine flu outbreak. While we must wait for formal advice from the Chief Medical Officer, there is no doubt that the number of cases has now fallen dramatically and it looks very likely that - for now at least - the threat of pandemic has receded.

That's why I think it is important that the Minister of Health initiate a review of the swine flu outbreak here in Northern Ireland.

What we need in this region is a culture of openness and constructive criticism. It is essential if we are to ensure that the public interest is always put first and that public money is spent wisely during times of crisis.

It is also important if public confidence is to be maintained during a potential future outbreak of swine flu or bird flu which cannot be ruled out.

Everyone agrees that the Government must do everything to protect the population from a potential pandemic. I commend the minister and Chief Medical Officer for doing their level-best to ensure that our region is fully prepared for any outbreak.

There is no question that the Northern Ireland Executive responded well to the crisis as it unfolded. However, the experience of swine flu does raise questions which now need to be addressed.

I would like us to reflect on whether stockpiling huge amounts of vaccine at significant cost to the Exchequer is the only option.

There are half-a-million vaccines now sitting in storage. We all hope they will never be needed, but surely there must be a better way of contracting with the big drug companies so we only pay for what we use.

As things stand, the drug com panies appear to be the big winners. Glaxo Smith Kline, the pharmaceutical company which manufactures the vaccine being used here, two days ago reported a 30% increase in sales.

In the last quarter of 2009, they claim to have sold £8bn-worth of product. This raises legitimate questions about whether global drugs companies have profited from the swine flu outbreak.

In light of this, it is important that we review purchasing arrangements to make sure that governments do not end up paying out millions on vaccines that do not get used.

On January 11, the Minister for Health, Michael McGimpsey, reported to the Assembly that negotiations with doctors about the delivery of vaccines had not progressed well.

He said: "The four UK health ministers agreed on an offer to be put to the general practitioners' committee of the BMA in respect of vaccinating children under five years of age. The fee offered was that agreed for vaccinating patients in the at-risk groups during phase one of the vaccination programme.

"In negotiations, the BMA confirmed that it could not accept the offer made on behalf of the four UK health administrations.

"In the absence of an agreed national deal, the four UK health ministers have determined that the vaccination of the under-fives will be delivered through local arrangements with willing GP practices and trusts."

This situation must not be allowed to happen again. In the end, GPs were paid £5.25 per patient. However, there are no figures available on how much has been paid to doctors on top of their existing contracts.

It is, therefore, important to review how government contracts with GPs to deliver vaccines during epidemics and pandemics. We need a prior agreement with practitioners to ensure vaccines can be distributed within existing contracts.

Nor are there exact figures on the amount the Department of Health paid for vaccines. The minister has refused to disclose these figures citing confidentiality agreements with the manufacturers and suppliers.

What we do know is that £61.5m has been set aside to cover the overall cost of the outbreak here in the North.

While the minister was able to protect frontline services in health from being hit by this extra bill, this money was taken out of other parts of the health budget and other government departments at a time when the pressure on public finances is huge.

This is why we need to review what happened in an honest and open way.