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Downing St. Briefing Monday 2 December

PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM MONDAY 2 DECEMBER 2002

IRAQ

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be hosting a tea for nine Iraqi women this afternoon, accompanied by Bakhtiar Amin of the International Alliance for Justice. All the women had had direct experience of Saddam Hussein's brutality. For example, the father of one had been assassinated; the village of another - a Kurd - had been destroyed; another woman's son had been wounded by chemical weapons; several members of the family of another woman had disappeared; the father of another had been poisoned with Valium, and so on. The visit obviously coincided with the publication of the Human Rights Report.

SMALLPOX

The PMOS drew journalists' attention to a written Ministerial Statement today from John Hutton on smallpox. It made clear that there was no immediate threat to the UK from smallpox, but obviously the consequences of any release of smallpox could be very serious. We continued to monitor the threat closely and continually reviewed the package of protective measures available to protect the population. We also had contingency plans in place in the event of an outbreak and also had secure access to stocks of smallpox vaccine. Today, the Department of Health was publishing an interim plan of action for discussion and comment over the coming month. Under this plan, it was intended to establish twelve Regional Smallpox Response Groups around the UK. They would consist of infectious disease physicians and paediatricians, public health physicians, microbiologists/virologists, acute care and communicable disease control nurses and occupational health staff. This core group of NHS staff would need to be immune to smallpox and therefore able to react quickly and work safely with patients with actual or suspected smallpox. The Plan also explained how smallpox cases would be handled in various scenarios. The Department of Health's primary strategy would be to contain and 'ring vaccinate' any outbreak.

The Health Minister was announcing today that we were offering vaccination against smallpox to a small number of volunteer healthcare professionals who would provide the first response in the event of a confirmed, suspected or threatened release. It was intended to vaccinate around 350 health care staff across the UK. The Ministry of Defence was planning to vaccinate a similar number of specialist military personnel. As Mr Hutton made clear, this would be done on an entirely voluntary basis on the basis of informed consent.

Asked whether today's announcement was a response to knowledge of a specific threat against the UK, the PMOS pointed to Mr Hutton's written Ministerial Statement in which he had said, "We have no evidence of a specific threat of a smallpox attack on the UK. However, it is sensible and prudent to ensure that the NHS can deal effectively with any potential threat". Asked about the timeframe within which the vaccines would be administered, the PMOS said that the process would be completed by the end of next month.

Asked about the purchase of the smallpox vaccine in order to cover the country as whole, the PMOS drew journalists' attention to the view of the World Health Organisation who had commented on the issue of 100% population coverage. The Director General of the WHO, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, had said in October 2001, "WHO confirms that the best method of stopping a smallpox outbreak, should it occur, remains the same - search and containment. That means identifying persons with smallpox, identifying those people who have been in contact with them, and vaccinating them. Existing vaccines have proven efficacy, but also have a high incidence of adverse side effects. The risk of adverse events is sufficiently high that mass vaccination is not warranted if there is no or little real risk of exposure". We were obviously taking account of the best medical advice available in preparing our plans.

In answer to questions relating to procurement of the smallpox vaccine, the PMOS said he vaguely remembered that we had discussed the issue before in a slightly different context. As journalists were well aware, Powderject had been awarded a contract to ensure the enhancement of the country's smallpox vaccine. We had always made it clear that we would not discuss the detail of how much stock we held because that information could potentially be of interest to those whose intentions towards us might be of a more malign nature. Asked if the Government was planning to purchase further vaccine, the PMOS said yes. He pointed out that the Department of Health had recently placed an advert in OJEC for the next phase of supply. Questioned about the contract awarded to Powderject in the first phase, the PMOS said that it had been awarded because the company could supply us with the right vaccine strain on time and in order to meet the needs which had been decided by the Department of Health. He reminded journalists that the Permanent Secretary at the Department at the time had been satisfied with the way the procurement and tendering process had been handled - which had been shaped mainly for security reasons. Subsequent to the process, it had been decided that Powderject was the only company which could provide us with what we wanted within the required timescale.

Asked whether today's announcement was an indication that the UK was preparing for possible Iraqi retaliation in the event of a war, the PMOS said that, as we had made clear many times previously, we believed Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons. We were pursuing this matter through the UN route as we wanted him to be disarmed. It went without saying that, post-September 11, we had to be live to the threat from terrorism, although, as we had underlined many times before, there was no specific threat to this country. Nevertheless, the Government would be failing in its duty were it not to plan appropriately for scenarios which obviously everybody hoped would never come to pass. That was why there had to be a realistic assessment of the potential dangers that could confront us - and that was exactly what we were doing.

Asked if we were 'gearing up' to deal with smallpox because it was the most likely biological weapon which could be used in the event of an attack on the UK, the PMOS said that he hadn't seen a particular table ranking of threat levels from different biological and chemical agents. However, although there was no specific threat, we had to accept that there were fanatics who thought nothing of causing mass slaughter, and who would do anything to get their hands on weapons which could be immensely damaging. That said, today's announcement was all about being realistic and keeping a sense of proportion.

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