Leave us alone on MMR, says Blair
Michael White and John Carvel
Friday December 21, 2001
Tony Blair yesterday led indignant senior colleagues in flatly rejecting tabloid pressure to disclose whether ministers' children - including his own son Leo - have had the controversial MMR triple vaccine.
In the face of claims by some parents and newspapers that Mr Blair has a duty to say whether he and his wife Cherie have acted on official advice to give their son the vaccine, the prime minister is adamant that his children's privacy comes first.
Mr Blair this week told Tory MP Julie Kirkbride, whose baby did not have the MMR jab: "I'm afraid I'm not going to enter into any public discussion of the health of my children."
Downing Street is fearful that such a disclosure would lead to further demands for intimate details about ministers' family health policies - ranging from safe sex practices for their teenage children to the toxic shock controversy surrounding tampons.
Ministers cite the public horror when John Gummer, the then Tory agriculture minister, publicly fed his daughter a beefburger to show that he believed British beef to be safe.
One minister said: "You start off answering questions about your kid's immunisation record and you end up with the spectacle of ministers feeding beefburgers to their kids in front of the TV cameras."
The failure to match Mr Gummer's gesture - which turned out to symbolise misplaced confidence - has led to claims that Leo Blair must have had his jabs privately and separately. No 10 insists it is refusing to rise to the bait as a matter of principle.
Alan Milburn, the health secretary who also has young children, shares Mr Blair's view and his indignation at the kind of trial-by-media which saw the junior health minister Jacqui Smith cross-examined by John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme.
The interviewer accused Ms Smith, who has two sons, of taking a "holier than thou position" when she refused to answer questions on whether they had been given the vaccination.
"Can you not see how worrying it is for people who are agonising ... over this decision? They are absolutely terrified. They don't know whether to do it. And ministers in the health department, such as yourself, are not prepared to say: 'Look it is so safe ... that I'm prepared to have my own children done.'"
Ms Smith said she supported government policy on MMR, but refused at least 10 attempts by Humphrys to get her to talk about her children's vaccination
Department of Health sources later said the exchanges breached an understanding that she would be questioned only on her responsibilities for social workers.
Health officials said 84% of children have had the MMR jab by the age of two, and that 92% have had at least one dose by five years.
Referring to the British doctor who raised the MMR alarm, one Whitehall source said: "You can't have a scientist whom the rest of the world thinks is completely wrong dictating health policy. What if we moved to single injections and had a Japanese-style epidemic? I don't think so."