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Sunday, 16 January, 2000, 13:20 GMT
Can the NHS cope with the flu epidemic?




The number of people in the UK affected by the outbreak of flu is continuing to rise. Latest figures for England show that cases of the virus have increased by a third in the past week. And the situation in Scotland is said to be worse.
Flu nightmare
Doctors have urged flu-sufferers not to take up vital NHS resources by making unnecessary visits.

The Conservatives say the health service is under severe pressure and claim the government is using the major flu outbreak to hide its mis-handling of the NHS.

However Health Secretary Alan Milburn said that while the outbreak was putting pressure on hospitals, they were coping.

Do you think the UK's health service can take the strain? Have you had trouble getting treatment? Send us your views and experiences. HAVE YOUR SAY

The NHS has been brought to its knees, flu or no flu. Politicians have played havoc with the NHS. Money wasted in prestigious projects like the Dome could have been channelled into the NHS. Real estate belonging to NHS has been sold for pennies. The same real estate if it had not been sold , nay given away for political reasons could have funded NHS for a good many years. The reforms still pour money down the drain due to mismanagement. Administration is exploding and laying the foundation for the NHS decay. Even Labour, is using poor flu as an excuse. Labour has learned a lot from the Tories. Lies and more lies.
Dr H S Bhogal, UK

Britain is a first world country with a third World, third rate, health care system. Most NHS hospitals are dirty, filthy and disgraceful. The problem is not one cash but poor management & allocation of budgetary resources within the individual NHS Trusts. The NHS is not working and this "sacred cow" must now be put to pasture and we need to look at some other system which is appropriate for the 21st century. Perhaps we should look to adopt the Australian model.
Sohail Hussain, UK



Being charged ten pounds a go would definitely stop their fingers peeping out of the covers to dial 999.
Kate, UK

The "lack of beds" situation would be much resolved if people had to pay a charge for the privilege to see a doctor at A & E. Flu is not just a cold - some people really believe to think they are "dying" when all they have are a few common flu symptoms. Being charged ten pounds a go would definitely stop their fingers peeping out of the covers to dial 999. Please. Only if your temperature exceeds 102 degrees or if you have a high temperature for longer than 3 days should you really feel it necessary to hit cancer patients and such-like off the priority lists.
Kate, UK

The NHS should have approved the use of the new anti-flu medications such as relenza and tamiflu. These medications work very well.
Alan Binette MD, USA

I'm surprised that more isn't being done to advise people on how to avoid getting flu. I found an excellent article on the subject on the web a few weeks ago, when all the members of my family were going down with the virus; I've heeded the advice of the article, and, so far, have avoided falling ill. A copy of the article can be found on www.qedis.co.uk/avoidflu.
Arvi, UK

I was refused a flu vaccination this year after having had one for the last 3 years, because I was told the criteria had become much stricter. Hasn't this fact largely contributed to the flu 'epidemic' currently underway?
Gill Regan, UK

As vaccinations and medicines have become more sophisticated, influenza-virus strains have naturally evolved into nastier varieties. Epidemics such as the present one are actually brought on by excessive dependence on such medical treatment. In most healthy people an influenza virus can be cured simply by rest and common sense. The NHS would actually help fight against further epidemics by refusing to waste its time and resources by treating snivelling wimps who are healthy enough to combat influenza on their own.
Molly Simon, USA (UK expatriate)

Back in 1957, when I was a fit young fellow in digs in my first job as an engineer, I came home from work, had supper, immediately afterwards fell into bed semi-conscious, spent a week totally unaware of the lack of attention to my precarious condition and likewise, totally unaware that my landlady was dying in the adjacent bedroom. I recovered. I can't recall thinking or hearing anybody suggest that I should have been in hospital. Why do people rush to clog up the system today when they could just as comfortably recover at home?
David Baynes, Canada

I definitely think that there should be some proper count of how many people have had the flu this time. Many people, like myself, stayed at home with the infection and didn't bother the doctor. My whole family has been ill though. Presumably, as we didn't contact the doctor, that's four of us who haven't been ill! The official figures can only be fictitious.
Many people will still only contact their doctor if, and when, they need a certificate to prove they are still ill. As this is only necessary after 7 days, anyone with unreported flu for under a week will not count. Maybe when patients start to seek out their sickness certificates the figures will suddenly jump.
J Burgess, UK

There are some short-sighted people out there!! Yes, Labour did promise to sort the underfunding crisis out and, to be fair, the mechanisms have been put into place to ensure things are a lot better now than pre-97 - ask those who work in the profession!
Unfortunately people expect instant results - I'm sorry that just doesn't happen. For instance, we're paying in 1997 for Thatcher's bad management in 1987 and it's unlikely that we'll witness Blair's benefits until 2007 - when probably they'll be a Tory government spouting out how they were responsible for 'saving the NHS'.
Makes you sick doesn't it!! Maybe if it weren't for 18 years of underfunding and concentration on making a two-tiered system, then we wouldn't be having this discussion!
Vern, Wales

It has been my belief for a long time that the NHS needs a huge rethink - not just a "tinkering". Treating flu in hospital seems an enormous waste of money, and puts undue pressure on the professionals struggling to cope there. Re-focus healthcare to the primary sector, including self-care, education, preventative medicine, alternative remedies and OTC treatment. Let the secondary sector deal with the serious illnesses for which they are best prepared and trained. I admire those in hospitals that have to cope patiently with the refugees from GP-land who they shouldn't have to be dealing with! Even today I find it easier to see a consultant than a GP and that's totally wrong!
Vicki Glynn, UK

What this epidemic highlights is the need for a more integrated approach to health, living conditions and health education. The Labour Government has made a start but more resources are required from more taxation and a look at how and on what we spend public funding. Having being involved with the NHS over the years due to serious illness and having seen beds disappear and my treatment delayed I find TORIES criticising this Government laughable and they should be ashamed of themselves for the poorly thought out and ill conceived cut backs of the 1980's. These lacked strategic thinking as did cuts to benefits and the social housing budgets. These have led to a worsening public health situation for the less well off. Now we are beginning to see the net effects of these. Thanks Mrs T, nice one!
Neil, UK

The NHS can barely cope when there isn't a flu epidemic, so people shouldn't be surprised if this outbreak has caused a panic. New Labour promised a far better health service, the country is still waiting.
P. Alexander, Wales

Maybe the Government, if it had any sense, should have spent millions on a Millennium hospital instead of the waste of space Millennium Dome.
Gary Holcombe, Cardiff, UK

As an NHS risk manager, I am more than a little suspicious that the issue is at least partially a convenient smokescreen for the current resource situation within the NHS. However, the Government should not shoulder the entire blame, as the public who should accept that NHS treatment does not grow on trees. Radical changes need to be made to the way in which we pay for our health services.
David Liddell, United Kingdom

King Edward VII Hospital in Midhurst, Sussex has for years provided both Private and NHS services on both In Patient and Out Patient basis. Suddenly, due to political dogma one has to assume, all NHS work at the Hospital has been stopped suddenly and totally. My parents were both over there last week as Out Patients and the place was relatively deserted; there were staff rattling around with nothing to do; and ALL the old NHS beds are empty. The staff were complaining at what the NHS has done to remove all NHS patients, and that they have nothing to do when other hospitals are totally overloaded. It is utter madness. And at the same time, the NHS is apparently considering sending patients to France, which they cannot cope with in the UK. But there is this hospital and probably many others like it around the UK where there is loads of capacity and staff but the only reason the Government will not make use of them is for reasons of bigotry and political dogma. Is this really what taxpayers of this country really should have to put up with? To me this is the best illustration of just what this Government is really doing and how it is behaving.
I M Hallett, Guildford, Surrey.



Nursing staff had to cope with the absence of virtually all support staff such as physiotherapists and management from 24th December to 4th January.
Tony Ellis, England
Following a car crash, my daughter has been in a large Surrey hospital since before Christmas. In addition to sickness the nursing staff had to cope with the absence of virtually all support staff such as physiotherapists and management from 24th December to 4th January. It is hardly surprising that nursing staff are demoralised and leaving the NHS in droves when senior management takes such little interest in "the sharp end". In any normal business, management staff muck-in to keep the production line running. Why should the NHS be different. It is time that the National Audit Office reviewed the top-heavy, expensive and often incompetent layers of management in the NHS and diverted the funds into the sharp end. Surely also, support staff such as physiotherapists and management should work shift work.
Tony Ellis, England

My partner contracted a severe dose of flu in our winter and when I experienced the symptoms of the sore throat I was given Relenza by my GP. I thereafter suffered no further symptoms. It is a good drop!
Richard Davie, Australia

The NHS can cope with the 'flu' epidemic and the country will survive. Beyond that, stronger measures should be taken to protect the people from the many viral strains that are presenting themselves today. This is a worldwide problem as we are coming to see. Forget doctors and drugs, eat well, exercise and take natural supplements to prevent or combat illness - they genuinely work.
Anon, Ireland

Unlike many of its complications the flu virus itself can't really be treated. It is thus often a source of bitter disappointment for the prescription-craving hypochondriacs among us. There really is nothing a GP can do but give you advice about keeping warm and drinking lots of fluids. Imagine how much worse (and expensive) things would be for the NHS if there actually WAS something they could do.
Mike Mathison (and Dr W), England

I am a hospital doctor in the UK, and am only peripherally involved in the current epidemic as it decimates my operating lists. I suppose a year isn't long enough for a wait for a cataract. Our nurses are more directly involved as their ward is filled with sufferers. Shortly before Christmas the hospital insisted that all nursing staff reapply for their own jobs, with no guarantee that they would get them, worsened conditions on so-called trust contracts and no consideration for years of devoted service. Several found this so demoralising and insulting that they left. Not surprisingly some wards closed due to lack of staff just before the epidemic, and now the trust is calling for all hands to the pump.
A nurse's husband, England

Why is it that other countries like the USA have a much more prominent antiviral strategy? Inexpensive anti-virals are used there to treat and protect vulnerable people e.g. in Nursing Homes. There are other antiviral options other than Relenza that the NHS could afford and would help alleviate the situation. Why have the UK government stockpiled the drug called amantadine in case of a pandemic, yet ignore it in an epidemic situation?
Elliot Barrington, UK

Steve Beat has it absolutely right. This whole story has been 'spun' by the government to deflect criticism of the NHS. However the comments made by the Tories really takes the biscuit as it was during their term of office in the 80's and most of the 90's that all the 'slack' was taken out of the Hospital system. Thousands of acute beds disappeared during this period!
Adrian Clarkson (Dr), UK



From a medical point of view we have to resist the easy temptation to give an antibiotic unless there is a complication which may respond to antibiotics.
Dr Alan Searle, USA
Sitting in my surgery in the USA it is fascinating to see the comments and responses to the current flu epidemic. We are experiencing the same problems here and have the same type of public reaction. I am getting requests for antibiotics for flu (which will do nothing for the flu, but may give you additional unpleasant symptoms), grumblings that the flu shots made no difference, patients with flu sitting for hours in the waiting room making sure others around them run the risk of getting it. We are behind because we are seeing others with the flu, and hopefully patiently explaining that the flu shot does not cover all viruses and that although the makeup of the viruses in the shot varies each year it can not cover them all, that no bad how they feel they will recover. From a medical point of view we have to resist the easy temptation to give an antibiotic unless there is a complication which may respond to antibiotics. This is not always easy. It sometimes takes about 5 times as long to explain why we do not give them as to just writing the prescription. What is the answer? Paying to see the doctor is not a deterrent. Public education may help if people trust the source of the information, and in both the USA and the UK this is not always the case. The medical professions need to be firm too and avoid giving medication inappropriately or our patients will come back each time they have the same problem instead of managing it at home. Flu shots may well have played a part in preventing many of the major flu epidemics which occurred throughout the first 70 years of the last century, since with our increased rate and speed of travel one could have expected many more outbreaks.
Dr Alan Searle, USA

I can not believe that people who develop flu symptoms actually feel entitled to taking up much needed hospital beds. For Christ's sake, show some sense and just wrap up warm and stay in bed for a couple of days.
Nina, UK

The NHS should be using homeopathic remedies to prevent and treat the flu. They're effective against viruses, fast-acting, cost only pennies per dose and also work prophylactically. During the 1918 flu, 80% of those treated with homeopathy survived, while 80% of those treated conventionally died.
Alan Victor, U.S.



If the NHS simply charged people 5 pounds a visit, this would surely filter out all the time wasters and give a better idea on what's really happening.
Nik Middleton, USA
If the NHS simply charged people 5 pounds a visit, this would surely filter out all the time wasters and give a better idea on what's really happening. I also heard a report that things will be better this week because a lot of nurses will be returning from an extended New Year's holiday. Why did the managers allow this to happen at a notorious flu month?
Nik Middleton, USA

I never go to the doctor with flu usually, I just stay in bed and sulk. I also refuse to take antibiotics unless they are absolutely necessary and nothing else works.
BUT. Just before Christmas, I got the latest strain of flu, which went away after 5 - 6 days. Or so I thought. I was hit with a pig of a chest infection straight afterwards (never had that before) which took 2 weeks and a course of antibiotics to shift. It certainly ruined Christmas and the Millennium celebrations in my house! If a bug like that can floor me, a healthy, 28-year-old adult, I can see how it could kill older and/or less healthy people. If only the Government had not been so short sighted, and had given Glaxo the go-ahead for Relenza now!
Sarah, UK



In my immediate family alone, both my husband and myself are suffering our second bout of flu this winter.
Madeline Smith, England
I would like to add to the comments that the official statistics regarding the flu epidemic can only be incorrect. In my immediate family alone, both my husband and myself are suffering our second bout of flu this winter. The first was two weeks after we had had our flu injection! My daughter came home for Christmas, and went down with the flu. My son, his wife and two children came home for the New Year and all went down with flu symptoms. Now both my husband and myself are again in bed with the flu, and we do not appear on any 'official' statistics, as we have treated the virus ourselves.
Added to this, many of my friends and their families, are also suffering from flu related symptoms, and have treated themselves, except where a secondary infection has occurred, and then antibiotics have been needed from the GP. There must be many many more people in the UK who have flu, but who are not amongst the 'official' figures.
Madeline Smith, England

I agree with Malcolm McCandless. You can't have a decent NHS and low taxes. You have to pay for the NHS somehow. The way NOT to go is the way of the US. I have lived under both systems and I know which I prefer.
Graham Howard, Brit living in USA



The NHS is only coping because of the sense shown by a great majority of the British public.
David J Williams, Sultanate of Oman
During my recent visit to the UK for the Christmas break, 8 members of my family, including myself, suffered from what appeared to be influenza. Symptoms were, hot and cold shivers, runny nose, aching back (particularly in the kidney area) sore bones and a severe chesty cough. Not one of us contacted the local GP or hospital and dosed ourselves up with Beechams powders, hot toddies and plenty of rest and liquids.
I think that many more people in the UK have done exactly the same. If that is the case, then the NHS is only coping because of the sense shown by a great majority of the British public. I personally believe that the NHS funding should be increased but it would be impossible for the NHS to be funded to a level where it is capable of dealing with a country-wide epidemic. There are bound to be shortages of staff, beds and the ability to treat people immediately at times such as these. It is then up to the professionals i.e. the doctors to operate a sensible priority system where only the severest cases are dealt with and other, less severe or urgent cases be delayed until the emergency is over.
David J Williams, Sultanate of Oman

I think the government should join the rest of the country and 'cough up' when it comes to the NHS.
Alex, England

Prevention is better than cure. Vaccinate the children, elderly and the vulnerable during this period of the year. Invest more money on vaccine development research so that the vaccine works against bunch of these flu viruses every year.
Marappa, UK

The Government is using the 'flu epidemic' as a cover up for the lack of funding for intensive care beds and appropriately trained staff in this country. The pressure being placed on intensive care beds is at crisis point and may well continue like this into the spring, long after the flu epidemic has finished. As technology improves more people will survive an acute illness - only if funding for more acute beds becomes available.
Ruth, England

Has it been thought about that the virus is coming from the melting polar ice caps, as mentioned in the mirror today? It does seem a little sudden, and the illness is very crippling, as most people I know have had it, and most end up laid out in bed, unable to move for the pain
Ben Duffin, England

My husband and I both suffered flu over Christmas, and it was obvious to anyone with a modicum of intelligence that we were already in an epidemic situation. One only had to hear locally how many friends etc also had flu to know that is was way above 400 in every 10,000. This is a very severe flu virus as is being proved now, and the reason numbers were so confused was because we were all told not to consult our GPs, so how can accurate numbers be known?
I had to visit my GP because flu developed into a chest infection, the first chest infection I have had in my life (57 yrs). My daughter, who is Staff Nurse/Team Leader in a small psychiatric unit was refused an anti flu jab by her GP long before the epidemic took hold, this seems a very dangerous decision as she could infect the whole of the unit of elderly people if she contracts the virus.
Mrs. J.F. Cartwright, UK

Like any resource limited service healthcare is not a bottomless pit. You would not believe some of the 'complaints' that clog up both primary care and A&E departments. There is a huge requirement to educate the population about effective use of their NHS and about valuing the staff who at the end of the day could have your life literally in their hands.
There is also a need to critically examine NHS management of resources. We cannot just keep throwing money at it in the hope it will all be OK. I wonder anyway how many readers would countenance 2p in the pound extra income tax to support public sector finance?
The NHS WILL cope through the dedication and skill of its staff but it would be helped greatly by a more responsible public.
Andy H, England

Much is being said about increasing the flu vaccination programme. I had the vaccination but have still contracted flu. My doctor told me that the vaccine only protects against some of the flu viruses and obviously the present one is from a different strain. So what's the point in further vaccination programmes unless they change the vaccine? Are there any statistics on the number of people suffering from flu who had received the vaccination? Very important information if they intend vaccinating more people.
John Evans, North Wales

It is interesting that original figures had less people suffering from the flu - determined by number of people going to see their GP. Did the NHS not run an advertising campaign urging people to NOT go to the Doctor for flu? Statistics can always be manipulated. I would estimate that the figures are even higher as almost all of my friends have had this flu, but not went to the Doctor or called the NHS helpline. My house of 8 people were all stricken but we just stayed in bed for a week.
Kate, UK

The crisis is of our own making. We have elected governments who appease us by tax cuts at the expense of health and education. An under-funded NHS cannot now deal with mild outbreaks of winter flus and colds. What do we really want less taxes or better health services? You can't have both.
Malcolm McCandless, Scotland

I get distinct feeling that this whole 'epidemic' is a figment of the government's imagination to cover up how unprepared it, and the NHS, has been. After all it is winter...who would suspect that a lot of people are going to catch flu?
Steve Beat, Scotland

Regarding the shortage of NHS staff, when I left school, anyone training as a doctor or nurse at the expense of the public purse had to guarantee to work for a certain number of years (the more highly qualified, the longer the time) in the NHS to "repay" their training. By the time their term was up, many had married and settled down, thus retaining a large number of skilled and experienced staff for the country's benefit.
This idea could be adapted for today's freer environment by allowing a "buyout" so that freedom to travel could be purchased or a substantial guarantee bond deposited that a wanderer would return after a certain time to give the required service to the NHS. A thought worth pursuing? After all, it's taxpayer's money providing the training.
Ann Elwell (Mrs.), England

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See also:
10 Jan 00 |  Health
Flu numbers 'keep growing'
09 Jan 00 |  Health
NHS on its knees, say Tories
10 Jan 00 |  Health
Flu: An NHS nightmare
10 Jan 00 |  Health
Flu vaccination - the facts

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