Page last updated at 15:03 GMT, Monday, 20 July 2009 16:03 UK

Pandemic flu service to go live

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Health Secretary Andy Burnham gives an update on the National Pandemic Flu Service

A national flu service will be launched later this week in England to relieve the pressure on the health service.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the phone and website service will be able to provide flu diagnosis and access to drugs without the need to go to GPs.

He also defended the government against claims from opposition parties that the service was a month late.

He said the government had wanted to wait until the health service was under intense pressure before acting.

In the past week, there have been 55,000 new cases of swine flu and every region in England is seeing "exceptional" levels of demand with the exception of Yorkshire and the Humber.

The service will not cover Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland as the demand there is not as great.

SWINE FLU SYMPTOMS
Human body with internal organs
1. High temperature, tiredness and lowered immunity
2. Headache, runny nose and sneezing
3. Sore throat
4. Shortness of breath
5. Loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea
6. Aching muscles, limb and joint pain
Source: NHS

Mr Burnham said: "Technology to launch the service has been available for some time.

"But with these latest figures and drawing on advice from the field we have now reached a point where this service is required.

"To act any sooner would have been a distraction to health staff dealing with it."

And in the face of claims of conflicting advice to pregnant women, Mr Burnham also denied that the guidance had changed since the start of the outbreak.

Some reports at the weekend suggested that women should even consider not getting pregnant and those that already are should avoid crowded places.

But Mr Burnham said the official advice was that women should think carefully about unnecessary travel and mixing with crowds.

He added the advice was "not hard and fast" and said people should use their own judgement and not alter their daily routines or avoid going to work.

Dr Laurence Buckman, the British Medical Association GP leader, said it was the right move to set up the flu service.

"Most GP practices, especially those in hotspots, are experiencing huge demand at the moment."

He added that if used properly the service would allow doctors to focus on those with the most severe symptoms as well as their regular patients.

Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer for England, said it was important that the new flu service was being launched now, ahead of the predicted surge in demand.

He said: "If we do have glitches and problems we will be able to deal with them and iron them out before we get the really heavy demand in the autumn and winter."

Dithering

HAVE YOUR SAY
I'm not worried - I have it. So does my girlfriend. And, frankly, it's no big deal
Dan Dover

But the Liberal Democrats have criticised government departments' in-fighting which for leading to the hotline being launched late.

They said documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Treasury was expected to approve the scheme in June last year, but did not do so until December.

A number of email exchanges between the Treasury and the Department of Health showed discussions of costs and timings, the party said.

Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb said "Whitehall in-fighting" meant GPs were having to cope with "a large number of calls that should have been directed to a national flu line".

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley agreed government dithering had "damaged the ability of the NHS to respond", saying the flu service should have been launched when the pandemic was announced a month ago.

He also raised concerns about the demand for intensive care beds as the virus continues to spread.

ADVICE FOR PREGNANT WOMEN
Observe good hand hygiene
Where possible, avoid contact with someone who is known or suspected to have swine flu
Contact GP immediately if they have flu-like symptoms
No need to curtail daily activities, but if they want to be particularly careful they may want to avoid densely-populated gatherings

"The UK already has far fewer critical care beds than other countries in Western Europe and North America.

"I can see no evidence that they've created the extra bed capacity or trained the extra staff that will be necessary to cope."

Twenty-nine people have now died in the UK after contracting swine flu - 26 in England and three in Scotland.

The government has warned that the number of deaths from the virus this winter in the UK could reach between 19,000 and 65,000.

But the government has stressed these are worst-case scenarios and compare to the 12,000 seasonal flu deaths seen each year on average.

Vaccines for swine flu will arrive in the UK by the end of August, although it is not clear when vaccination might start because of the need for testing and licensing.

Scotland has also called on the Treasury to release more funds for the vaccination programme with Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon warning cuts would have to be made elsewhere if not.



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