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The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"NHS resources will always be tight during winter"
 real 28k

Monday, 22 May, 2000, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Millions for critical care beds
Flu jab
Flu vaccination programme to be extended
Some of the extra NHS millions announced in the Budget will be spent on facilities for the most desperately-ill patients, Health Secretary Alan Milburn has announced.

The Government is slicing 150m off the 600m announced in March to pay for an extra 220 critical care beds.

It is an attempt to reduce some of the strain on the health service caused by winter pressures such as flu outbreaks.

In addition, the NHS flu vaccination programme is to be extended to those over the age of 65.

The World Health Organisation has said that Britain's preparations for the annual winter flu outbreak were inadequate and one of the worst in Europe.



We have to learn the lessons of what worked well, alongside the lessons of what did not

Alan Milburn
Last year a flu vaccination was offered to everyone over 75 and vulnerable groups like people with chest problems and asthma.

However, uptake even among the over 75s was poor this year, and ministers will spend almost 3m on a publicity campaign to try and make sure two-thirds of those eligible receive the jab.

The vaccine is formulated each year from the emerging strains of the flu virus which scientists think are likely to be most prevalent and cause the biggest problems.

Embarrassment

The consequences of the flu outbreak were a particular embarrassment for the government this winter.

Despite it falling well short of official epidemic status, thousands of non-urgent operations had to be cancelled and many hospitals were full to bursting.

Mr Milburn said: "Winter is always the busiest time and the biggest test for the NHS.

"We have to learn the lessons of what worked well, alongside the lessons of what did not.

"Next winter we have to increase the numbers of people taking up the flu vaccine. More people immunised - pensioners, those at risk, health and social care staff - will mean less strain on local health services."

This year a particularly virulent strain was blamed for hospitalising many people with breathing problems.

However, some experts said that it was a shortage of nurses and hospital beds which intensified the impact of the flu bug.

The government's own advisors say that a 10% increase in critical care beds - staffed to cope with more seriously-ill patients - is needed.

Mr Milburn said: "Expansion in critical care services is needed not just to cope with winter pressures, it is necessary to meet our ambitions for an expansion in major surgical services in the NHS, particularly for cancer and coronary heart disease."

At least 5m of the 150m will go into intensive care services specifically aimed at newborn babies.

Outreach teams

In addition, 50 "outreach" teams will be trained. Their job is to educate other health workers about the right time to send a patient to a critical care unit.

A spokeswoman for Help The Aged said: "We warmly welcome the plans and hope that elderly people will seize the opportunity to protect themselves.

"Prevention is always better than cure and the flu jab can make all the difference between life and death for thousands of old people."

In a separate development, drug firm Glaxo Wellcome said that it hoped to try again later this year to get its anti-flu drug Relenza recommended for NHS use.

Their initial application was turned down late last year - the Government's drugs advisory body, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, said there was insufficient evidence that it worked on vulnerable groups such as the elderly and weak.

The company says that it hoped to submit new evidence relating to these groups by the end of the summer.

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See also:

10 Jan 00 | Health
Flu crisis: How bad is it?
06 Jan 00 | Health
Tackling the misery of flu
10 Jan 00 | Health
Flu could be 'worst for decade'
10 Jan 00 | Background Briefings
Flu: An NHS nightmare
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