Swine flu helpline hit by problems

The launch of the national pandemic flu service for England yesterday was marred by some early hiccups as the number of the country’s swine flu cases was estimated to have almost doubled in a week from 55,000 to 100,000.

Despite the steep rise in cases, there was a smaller increase in the numbers in hospital with the disease – up to 840 against 652 last week – and a rise of just 10 in the number in intensive care to 63. All strategic health auth­ority areas are classified as suffering from “exceptional influenza activity”. Some areas, including eastern districts of London, are hot spots.

But at 150 consultations per 100,000 population, the number of patients visiting the GP nationally remains below the rates seen in the last sizeable outbreak of flu like illness in 1999-2000 and the number of actual cases is far below the peak of the last flu pandemic in 1969-70.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, said more detailed investigation of the deaths that have to date been attributed to swine flu had resulted in some new cases being counted in and others discounted, leaving the provisional total at 26.

The English figures were disclosed as Professor Hugh Pennington, a leading virologist at the University of Aberdeen, said that Scotland was “possibly through the worst” of the first phase of the virus as latest figures showed far lower GP consultation rates than in ­England.

The relatively small rise in those being admitted to hospital in England and an apparent drop in the GP consultation rate in some parts of the country provided a possible first hint that the initial wave of the infection might also be peaking in England, as it has in the US.

But Sir Liam warned against “reading too much” into those figures. If the data held for another week or so they might indicate a lull in the pandemic, “but I don’t think so yet”.

The infection remains mild in most people and continues disproportionately to affect children. Two thirds of those who have died had other severe underlying medical conditions, Sir Liam said, with only 16 per cent of the small number of deaths in otherwise healthy people.

“The bad thing would be if 100 per cent of the deaths were healthy people,” he said. With the current state of the virus, “the vast majority, even with an underlying condition, will get flu and recover well”.

The Federation of Small Businesses wrote on Thursday to Andy Burnham, the health secretary, calling for measures to help its members through the pandemic.

It wants routine inspections of businesses suspended in areas with high levels of infection and a simpler system for the smallest companies to reclaim statutory sick pay.

“A small firm employing only three people could expect to have all of its workforce off for up to two weeks this autumn,” John Wright, the federation’s national chairman, said.

Sir Liam said that school closures had not been ruled out for the autumn, but “it would be a huge step to close schools across the country”, with a considerable economic impact.

The pandemic flu service is intended to lift the burden from GPs and give swift access to anti virals. Patients whose replies to a list of questions indicate they may have swine flu will be given an access number and told where a relative or friend can, with suitable ID, collect their Tamiflu.

The Association of British Insurers said its members would accept the number as the equivalent of a medical diagnosis of flu for travel insurance claims.

Early callers to the swine flu hotline on Thursday afternoon were greeted with the slightly disconcerting question asking whether they were “conscious”, write FT reporters.

More worrying was the fact that the online version had already crashed after being swamped, though the telephone service seemed to be working well and call centre staff were responding promptly.

One potential sufferer with flu-type symptoms said the person taking his call appeared to be reading from a similar list of “do you have swine flu?” questions as seen online. The questions ranged from “do you have trouble speaking?” to “do you have a patch of purple dots underneath your skin?” and “can you bring your chin down to your chest?”

Callers are also told that if they misused the service they would be prosecuted.

No questions were asked of the caller whether he was part of an “at risk” group, such as asthmatics.

He described the process as similar to “ringing a bank or an insurance company”, with the call-centre worker “clearly not a medical professional”. The 2,000 operators will liaise with GPs to report problems. So far, the hotline is available only in England.


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