Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Sunday, 26 July 2009 16:54 UK

Government defends flu response

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The government has rejected accusations it should have introduced the national swine flu helpline in England sooner.

Ministers are expected to be criticised by the Lords' science and technology committee for being too slow to set up the National Pandemic Flu Service.

But Health Minister Gillian Merron said the service could only be launched when levels of infection were "significant".

More than 5,500 people got anti-viral drugs on day one of the flu line and ministers said it was "working well".

Government timetable

Ms Merron said: "To say that the National Pandemic Flu Service has been delayed, or that it should have been introduced sooner, is untrue.

"The service was set up at the request of GPs and the NHS and has been welcomed by them.

"Launching the service could only be done at the point where we moved from local outbreaks of swine flu to significant levels of infection across the country."

The service was there when it was needed
Gillian Merron
Health Minister

She said the situation had gone from six to 110 primary care trusts reporting exceptional levels of activity dealing with swine flu across the country.

"We responded straight away by launching the service, providing a national system for the public to access anti-virals and relieving the load on NHS primary care. The service was there when it was needed," she said.

In a report due out on Tuesday, the committee is expected to say the government failed to follow its own timetable for informing and advising the public in the event of a pandemic.

The committee had recommended in 2005 - when it was looking at a possible bird flu pandemic - that the government should ensure it had adequate and prompt systems for providing information to the public.

Anti-viral drugs

The National Flu Pandemic Service telephone hotline and website were launched so patients can obtain treatment without a GP's prescription.

If patients are diagnosed with the virus, they are issued with a unique reference number which must be given when anti-viral drugs are collected.

However, patients are still being advised to contact GPs if they have serious underlying illnesses, are pregnant, have sick children aged under one, their condition suddenly worsens or continues to worsen after seven days, or five for a child.

More than 100,000 people in the UK are estimated to have caught swine flu in the past week alone. Some 30 people have died after contracting the illness.

Among the symptoms are fever or temperature over 38C or 100.4F, coupled with two of unusual tiredness, headache, runny nose, sore throat, shortness of breath or cough, loss of appetite, aching muscles, diarrhoea or vomiting.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Andy Burnham has said undue worry about the virus, which is mild in most cases, could put a strain on the NHS.

He told Sunday's Observer: "If people are made unnecessarily anxious, it makes the lives of NHS professionals, who are already under enormous pressure, far more difficult."

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