Dr Julian Lewis: I pay tribute to everybody who has campaigned on this issue. I agree with every word of every previous speaker. I do not envy the Minister in having to reply to the debate, but I offer her an apology in that, because of an inescapable commitment that has been in my diary for many weeks, I will not be present for her reply. I gave my apologies to you, Mr Rosindell, in advance, and to our hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), who will be in the Chair later.
The issue was eloquently summed up by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) when she said that she could have reread her speech of 8 July word for word and it would have been as relevant today as it was then. Interrogating my own website on my contributions on this subject in preparation for the debate, I see that, apart from speaking on that occasion, my first effort on this topic was way back in a debate on 19 April 2018. I have to ask the Minister why, when terrible health disasters happen, it always takes so long to do the right thing. All that does is prolong the agony for the victims. I suppose the people responsible for trying to make recompense feel that they will be out of the picture by the time their successors have to pick up the pieces, but it smacks of the contaminated blood scandal all over again. Everybody knew that it was a horrible disaster, yet it took so many years, indeed decades, before compensation was finally paid.
I want to give a voice to three of my constituents, who have summarised their experiences for me, and if time permits to refer to just a few of the dozen or so multifaceted written questions that I have tabled, with differing success in terms of replies, between July 2020 and November 2021. Let me first précis the summary that my constituent Amanda, or Mandy, has prepared for me. She had a procedure in 2009 for the insertion of TVT–transvaginal tape. She says that
“the surgeons need to take responsibility and ensure that these failings are not perpetuated. The pain and suffering we have endured and continue to endure is traumatic physically, emotionally, and financially”.
She says that she has subsequently had to undergo many surgical episodes that would have been unnecessary, and that
“had I been aware of the risks and the fact that alternatives were available I would not have had surgery in the first instance. Partial removal surgery made things significantly worse. To date I have had 8 operations relating to the TVT.”
Mandy lists some of the costs that it has meant for her:
“Left in ongoing chronic pain
Loss of some independence
No intimacy possible
Relationship with husband negatively impacted which has an impact on work as we run a business together
Negative impact on my family and friends. I used to be happy and cheerful person, but this is now a constant struggle
Emotional stress of trying to appear ‘normal’ takes its toll
Feeling of being a failure as a woman and in my work life”.
The list goes on. Then she comes to the topic of the failure of the surgeon. There are three entries here:
“Failure to discuss risks prior to surgery
Failure to suggest alternatives to TVT
Failure to obtain informed consent”.
On the financial loss, I will not quote from her list, because others have set out the cost to them, but Members can be sure that it applies to Mandy as well.
My second constituent Helen, or Ellie, had two implants, in 2009 and 2011. This is what she has to say about the effects of these unnecessary procedures:
“Mesh has restricted my ability to work full time, due to constant pain, which has impacted negatively on my family…Mesh has cost me financially to travel for hospital appointments out of area. I’ve had to travel to London three times, staying in a hotel twice. Travelling to Bristol 9 times, staying in a hotel 7 times, as I am not able to sit to drive home on the same day due to pain. So not only fuel costs but hotel fees as well…Mesh has impacted negatively as I was told one operation would fix me, so one day’s lost wages, which ultimately has resulted in 9 more operations, each requiring weeks off work, each resulting in loss of income and now ending with one more surgery which could also require more follow up surgeries.”
She says that mesh, as in the case of Mandy,
“has cost me my sex life”
“which there is no financial recompense”
“Mesh has cost me the ability to care adequately for my disabled husband, who now has to try to care for me…Mesh costs me monthly for my pain medication.”
If time permits, I will refer to the brush-offs I have had when asking if Government would make it their policy to at least exempt these victims of NHS failure from prescription charges, with no success so far.
Helen goes on:
“Mesh costs me the price of a cleaner twice a week as I can no longer manage it all myself… Mesh costs me the pain of sitting in a car for over a two hundred mile round trip each time I go to see my consultant, as I can’t see my local butcher.”
That leads me on to something that has been hinted at before: it is all well and good to set up specialist mesh removal centres, but if the only choice people are given is to go to the surgeon who put the mesh in, who has now, after repeated failures, been appointed to take it out, would they seriously put themselves in his or her care again?
Finally, I want to talk about Emma, who is not only a victim of this herself, but someone for whom I am lost in admiration. She has acted, in a sense, as a focal point and a support for the other victims. Every so often she thanks me for what I have done to support them. I feel a complete fraud when she does that, because we should be thanking her for what she is doing as someone who is suffering from this and reaching out to support other victims. I know she is watching this debate on the feed today, and I express publicly my total admiration for her.
“Mesh has cost me my career. I am no longer able to fulfil the driving element of my job and have lost my Class 1 HGV licence as I cannot pass a medical… Mesh has cost me the ability to work at a desk, in an office, therefore restricting my earning potential, and in turn my pension contributions. It also restricts my ability to find alternative work… Mesh has cost me thousands of pounds in travel, subsistence, accommodation and parking… loss of earnings & annual leave… days off for appointments, surgery, recovery, and mesh-related ill health.”
That has all taken its toll. I could go on, but I will just pick one or two examples from the long list of the consequences of this disaster for Emma. She says:
“The battle to get any form of PIP was traumatic and stressful. The evidence was ignored, the condition insight report was not recognised (despite it being a DWP authored document).”
She goes on to say that PIP
“was only awarded (eventually) at an Independent Tribunal; which means I will have to reapply again, from the beginning, in just over 12 months’ time…All told, the entire situation is extremely draining mentally, emotionally and physically.”
Emma has also communicated with me while this debate has been under way, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, to point out that – as Southampton has been mentioned – there is, as yet, no named surgeon at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust’s so-called specialist centre.
I conclude by saying that I have been disappointed with the series of responses I have had to my dozen questions, which are all easily accessible for anyone who cares to look on the written questions section of my website. I was most disappointed by the response to question 31274, from 12 July 2021, which asked, in part, what steps the Secretary of State
“plans to take to research new and improved techniques for removal of eroded surgical mesh implants; and if he will make it his policy to establish a unit for developing such techniques in order to train a new generation of mesh-removal specialists to treat people who experience the effects of failed mesh implants in the future.”
Bearing in mind what has been said about the intense difficulty of extracting degraded mesh from the flesh that has grown around it, I have often wondered whether there might be a technique to melt it away, rather than trying to extract it. However, if we do not do the research, we cannot possibly find a solution. The answer came, bluntly, from the then Minister of State, who is now the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport [Nadine Dorries]:
“There are no current studies specifically relating to new and improved techniques for the removal of eroded surgical mesh. However, there are five studies ongoing on surgical mesh implants and the National Institute for Health Research welcomes funding applications for research into any aspect of human health, including on the removal or implantation of vaginal mesh. There are currently no plans to establish a unit in order to train mesh removal specialists.”
We know that only a tiny handful of people have successfully specialised in this field. They ought to be empowered to train up a new generation to help these people, whose suffering will otherwise continue indefinitely.