Gillian Keegan – 2021 Speech on NHS Allergy Services

The speech made by Gillian Keegan, the Minister for Care and Mental Health, in the House of Commons on 29 October 2021.

I thank the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) not only for securing this debate on this important issue but for arranging for me to meet, on Wednesday, the wonderful APPG to receive a copy of its report in person.

The Government recognise the challenges faced by people with allergies and are taking a number of actions to further support them. Allergies affect around 20 million people in the UK. For most, they are mild, but for some they are severe and can be fatal. That was the case for 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who sadly passed away in 2016. Thanks to the tireless work by Natasha’s parents, Tanya and Nadim, and their charity, the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, Natasha’s law came into force in October this year. That milestone legislation sets out the legal requirement for all food retailers and operators to display full ingredient and allergen labelling information on every food item they sell pre-packed for direct sale. This will give the millions throughout the UK who are living with food allergies and intolerances better protection and more confidence in the food they buy.

We know how important it is that healthcare professionals, people with allergies and those close to them have the information that they need about the safe and effective use of adrenaline auto-injectors—AAIs—when they are administered in an emergency situation. That is why the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is developing a communications campaign to convey key messages to improve the safe and effective use of AAIs, including the need to carry two AAIs at all times.

People with allergies continue to be supported through locally commissioned services but, to support patients with more complex conditions, NHS England and NHS Improvement also directly commission some specialised services such as specialist allergy clinics.

As with all conditions, we acknowledge that we need to have the right professional support in place for people living with allergies, including national clinical leadership. We have already established a clinical reference group for specialised allergy and immunology services, chaired by Dr Tomaz Garcez, a consultant immunologist. Membership includes clinicians, commissioners, public health experts, patients and carers. They use their combined knowledge and expertise to advise NHS England on the best ways to provide those specialist services. To support clinicians in the implementation of clear care pathways, the NICE website has guidance to support diagnosis and treatment of a range of allergy conditions, including how to identify allergies, when to refer to specialist care, and how to ensure allergies are recorded in people’s medical records.

The importance of getting that right was emphasised to me when I had the privilege of meeting people on Wednesday, when the all-party group shared its report. In particular, I was personally touched by the story of the two young boys I met, Arlo and Monty, who suffer from serious allergies. The report rightly emphasises the need and the importance of having a highly skilled workforce educated in allergy diagnosis and treatment to ensure that they can appropriately support people in managing their conditions. I have agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman and other representatives from the group to discuss that important issue further. I also plan to arrange a roundtable meeting in due course, so we can understand what additional help is required.

On ensuring we have the right workforce in place, there has been some encouraging progress. However, we know that more can be done. We are working with HEE to increase the uptake in available training places. The latest figures to June 2021 show that the number of doctors, and doctors in training, in specialist allergy and immunology has increased. I know there are already many dedicated medical professionals working in allergy and immunology specialisms.

Relevant training is the responsibility of the Royal College of Physicians, with a certificate of completion of training in allergy and immunology available to support specialist allergy care. The RCP also runs an accreditation scheme, improving quality in allergy services. Currently, there are seven accredited NHS trusts in England: North Bristol NHS Trust; Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust; Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust; University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust; University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust; and University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust. A further 22 trusts across the UK are working towards accreditation. In addition, the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology provides training for primary care staff across the country through workshops and education. The Royal College of General Practitioners has developed an allergy e-learning online resource to support CPD and revalidation, which aims to educate GPs about the various presentations of allergic disease, how to access an atopic patient, and when to investigate in primary care or refer to secondary care.

Looking to the future, we continue to invest in research to improve the health outcomes of those living with allergies. Over the past five years, the Department of Health and Social Care has awarded the National Institute for Health Research over £2 million for research into food allergies. It is currently funding two trials investigating food allergy using oral immunotherapy, including one that compares two treatments for an allergy to cows’ milk in babies and another which seeks to overcome severe allergic reactions to peanuts in adults.

This is a very important debate, and I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing it forward. I look forward to working with him to improve services. The NHS works really hard to care for all its patients, including those suffering from allergies, mild or severe. I want to ensure that all adults and children, like Monty and Arlo, living with allergies continue to receive the best care possible and feel safe and confident in the care that they receive. We will continue to work with our delivery partners and stakeholders to ensure that we have the workforce, clinical leadership and expert guidance in place to best support those living with allergies.

Finally, I want to say a special thank you to Arlo and Monty. On Wednesday, during half-term, they gave up their time and, when most other children were out and about enjoying activities, they got here early with their parents to present the report to me. They looked fantastic and spoke very wisely. That really brought home to me the maturity of young children who have to live with allergies, with all the things they need to know and all the personal responsibility they need to take. I will do all that I can to make life better for them and others like them.