Page last updated at 16:56 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 17:56 UK

Q&A: The flu service

The National Pandemic Flu Service has been launched in England. It is the latest move in the government's fight against swine flu. But what will it do and why has it been established now?

Syringes
The flu service just covers England

What is the flu service for?

The flu line is a phone and internet service.

To contact the service, call 0800 1 513 100 or log on to www.direct.gov.uk/pandemicflu

It uses a checklist to diagnose whether people have swine flu and can then give them access to anti-flu drugs if necessary.

Pregnant women, children under one and people with underlying health conditions are all still being advised to contact doctors.

What is more, no-one is duty bound to use the service. They can still contact their GP if they wish.

Those who are deemed to have swine flu by the service will be given a voucher number and asked to arrange for a "flu friend" to pick up anti-viral drugs from a distribution point.

They will be asked to bring ID for themselves and the flu sufferer to verify who they are.

The flu service has always been envisaged - it was part of the official contingency plans - but was said to have been delayed until the autumn.

Does this mean it has been rushed out?

Yes. Officials say it is only the interim version, not the "all-singing, all dancing" one that will be in place by the autumn.

From the start, there will be 1,500 people at most staffing the call centres.

In time, this number will be increased to cope with surges in demand.

The government is also hoping to introduce a bit more flexibility into the checklist so it can respond quickly to changes in the virus.

However, they are insistent it is fully capable of doing the job it is designed for in the immediate future - relieving the pressure on GPs.

Why is it being introduced now?

The second week of July was the turning point. There was a sudden surge in demand on the NHS.

There were a suspected 55,000 new cases in the space of seven days, while services were deluged with requests from the worried-well.

NHS Direct saw its calls rise to four times the normal winter levels, when demand on the service is at its highest.

For GPs, the consultation rate for flu-like illness rose to over 70 per 100,000.

In isolation, this is not that high. It reached a similar figure during the winter for seasonal flu and is still well short of the 200 needed for epidemic proportions.

However, what the headline figure does not illustrate is the pressure being put on services in hot-spots.

For example, in one London borough, the consultation rate topped 700 per 100,000.

Hospitals in the West Midlands have reported having wards full of swine flu patients.

The following week, the situation got even worse with an extra 100,000 new cases.

The government felt it had to get the flu line running to take some of the pressure off the NHS and allow doctors to focus on the most ill as well as on their regular patients suffering from serious conditions such as heart disease and asthma.

Won't it be open to abuse?

Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, has admitted people will be able to cheat the system.

It will not be long before the "correct" answers that will get people anti-viral drugs will appear on the internet somewhere.

However, the government accepts this is a price worth paying for relieving the pressure on the health service.

Sir Liam says he believes it will only be a "minority" of people who abuse the system.

There are also safeguards in place. Everyone in the country has a unique flu number so, if they try to get anti-virals more than once, the NHS will know.

Why does it only cover England?

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have all decided to stay out of the service as the demands being placed on health staff are not as great.

Even though Scotland saw the first case of swine flu and had the first death, the country is not seeing the "exceptional" levels of demand seen in every region of England.

And the fact is that single GP practices in London have seen more cases than the whole of Wales or Northern Ireland.

Also, GPs in all three nations do not tend to have such large patient lists as in England, leaving them more able to cope with fluctuating demand.

However, all three will be able to plug into the service if they need to.



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