Page last updated at 07:24 GMT, Friday, 17 July 2009 08:24 UK

UK swine flu deaths jump to 29

Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Swine flu public health poster
The National Flu Service will go live at the end of next week

Twenty-nine people have now died in the UK after contracting swine flu, up from 17 on Monday, the government has said.

It comes as the number of new cases hit 55,000 last week and the NHS has seen a surge in calls and consultations.

Ministers in England have responded by promising the National Flu Service will go live at the end of next week to relieve pressure on hospitals and GPs.

The government has also warned that deaths from swine flu this winter could be between 19,000 and 65,000 in the UK.

Experts said it was impossible to predict exactly, but with a third of the population perhaps becoming infected in the coming months the death toll could rise to such numbers.

The World Health Organisation has also described the pandemic as the fastest-moving one ever, adding it was now pointless to count every case.

The flu service has always been part of the government's contingency plans, although it had been delayed and was not expected until the autumn
The version that goes live next week will be manned by up to 2,000 call centre staff at any one time
They will use a checklist to diagnose whether the person calling has swine flu and will be able to give them a voucher number to get anti-viral drugs if they are believed to be infected
The public will also be able to use a website to fill in the checklist as well and get access to the voucher number that way
People will still be able to go direct to GPs and parents of children under one and those with underlying health conditions should still contact a doctor if swine flu is suspected
The number of staff will be increased if necessary and there are plans to roll it out across the UK if necessary

The pandemic flu service will allow people to get access to anti-flu drugs by calling in or using the internet.

It will not be available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as officials believe the demands being placed on the health service there are not as great.

In England, the rate of calls to NHS Direct is four times higher than would be expected for the winter, while the number of people in hospital has doubled to 652. Some 53 of these are in a critical condition.

In the worst hit areas, hospitals have reported having wards full of children with swine flu, while GP practices have said they are seeing between 50 and 60 flu cases a day.

Every region of England has seen a rise in demand for services during the past seven days with only Yorkshire and the Humber not now reporting "exceptional" levels.


Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said: "The flu service will mean the pressure will get taken off front-line staff to allow them to concentrate on the most serious cases."

But he said there were still no signs the virus was mutating and becoming more severe.

And he added despite reports of delays with a vaccine, the UK was still expecting the first batches by the end of August with 60m doses by the end of the year.

Of the 29 deaths, 26 have been in England and three in Scotland.

The most recent victims include a Swindon patient and a female tourist who died in Scotland.

The woman - who suffered underlying health problems - died after being admitted to hospital in Inverness three weeks ago.

Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson outlines plans for a national flu service

However, Sir Liam said it was important to keep the rising death toll in context.

During the 1999 to 2000 winter, seasonal flu deaths reached 21,000 and even during average winters there are normally anywhere between 6,000 to 8,000 deaths.

Professor Stephen Field, president of the Royal College of GPs, said: "The flu service has come at the right time. GPs in the hotspots were under a lot of pressure and this should help."

He later told BBC Radio Four's Today programme that with thousands of deaths expected every year from seasonal flu, the NHS was always planning services based on assumptions.

"The problem is that the public don't understand that this is the sort of thing that we expect every year anyway, so it's very difficult to get the balance right," he said.

However, he added that it was unusual for a pandemic to "take off" at this time of year in the way swine flu had.

Meanwhile Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley questioned whether the NHS would be able to cope.

He said there was little guidance for GPs and the outbreak was going to "dramatically" test the capacity of hospitals.

He added that with a hospital system that ran at close to full capacity all the time it was difficult to add additional capacity.

"So some of the decisions about priorities, of cancelling elective operations, of deciding who to treat in hospital and who not to treat in hospital - they will be quite difficult decisions if some of the assumptions about the increase in the number of cases is as great as the government are predicting."

Rates of flu-like illness

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