POLITICS

What with all the excitement in the House of Lords, I rang Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior at home in Cambridgeshire the other evening. It's not something I do very often, but the scale of alarm being generated in the Upper House seemed to warrant it.

I refer, of course, to the report of their lordships' science and technology committee on resistance to antibiotics, not to their hereditary lordships' own resistance to abolition, though the debate in question also shines some unexpected light on that controversy.

You may remember the 'Lords lead fight against killer bugs' publicity over the report last spring: a combination of misuse of antibiotics by doctors and their patients and excessive use in the animal food chain to promote growth is threatening us all with what one peer called the pre-penicillin age, when thousands routinely died of infections - well into the 1950s.

Lord Soulsby's committee is a bit grumpy because it has waited over six months for a government response, in marked contrast to the panicky speed with which ministers rejected another Lords' report - urging the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes - before they had read it. Such is the power of the tabloid muggers.

But peers know that Tessa Jowell is very busy with her looming public health white paper and take comfort from various steps taken by the Department of Health (that guidance paper called The Path of Least Resistance), by medics, vets and even the EU, which is trying to curb wrong usage. Why? Because publicity is the core of the issue, as the debate revealed, to 'modify public expectations' as Lord Patrick Jenkin - remember him? - explained.

It's not easy. Patients who bring their sick kids to the GP expect an antibiotic even if it is a virus. Antibiotics don't cure colds. As such they weaken resistance and make us all liable to such alarming possibilities as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which sweeps understaffed wards.

It killed Ann Fitt, Lord Gerry Fitt's wife of 48 years, when she caught it during a short stay at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to have her asthma medication changed. Gerry Fitt has made this harrowing speech before, but other peers confirmed that better hospital hygiene is a factor. So is hospital overcrowding. Not easy, Lord Fitt conceded. The Fitts had two nurse daughters.

The flip-side came from Robert Winston, the Labour-ennobled test-tube pioneer, who sits on the committee. As a young locum moonlighting in Southend he sent a mother away without the prescription she sought: three hours later her child was dead. 'That still lives with me,' he said.

One bit of comfort they did extract from ex-NHS Confed chief Lord (Philip) Hunt was that the government will 'continue strongly to promote adherence to prescription-only status for all antibiotics within the EU and elsewhere'. That is in contrast to the casual over-the-counter culture which prevails in southern Europe and (Lord Soulsby tells me) South Africa, South America and Asia. MRSA, salmonella and their cousins know no frontiers.

But let's not be complacent in the cold north. Public health labs told the committee that in some regions of Britain (which they did not identify) 'defensive prescribing of antibiotics is the rule', as it is - needless to say - in the litigious US, where Robert Winston's youthful Southend error would be mega-bucks.

Which regions? Soft south or nervous north? You tell me. But I can tell you that the hereditary peerage was very marginal to this expert debate. Lord Soulsby is a distinguished scientist, elevated by John Major. Likewise Lady Platt. Lord Walter Perry of Open University fame is a medic. Lady McFarlane is a nurse by trade. Patrick Jenkin was secretary of state and a trust chair. Lord Craig was chief of defence staff. Lady Masham uses a wheelchair.

They all have powerful CVs as long as Tony Blair's arm. Only three hereds joined the debate. The 3rd Baron McNair has a special interest in alternative medicines. The 7th Earl of Clanwilliam (created 1776) favours organic farming. The 2nd Baron Lucas... well, I'm not sure, but he sits on the committee. Worthy contributions all, but the second chamber will manage without them.

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