Swine flu- labour ministers blamed for chaos
The report will attack the labour Government’s failure to keep its promise to set up a flu telephone helpline by April.
Labour Ministers will be held to account for the delay in setting up the national flu helpline and for giving confusing advice to vulnerable groups and NHS staff.
The report will be published as senior doctors hold an urgent meeting with Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, in a last ditch attempt to persuade him to drop controversial European rules limiting the hours doctors can work, which are due to come into force on Saturday.
One doctor gave warning that the NHS was facing a “triple whammy” as it struggled with swine flu, the introduction of the European Union Working Time Directive and– four days later – the movement of more than 30,000 junior doctors between hospitals as part of the annual rotation of specialities.
Further concerns over Britain’s swine flu response are raised today by a Sunday Telegraph investigation, which has exposed major security lapses in the national flu pandemic service.
The flaws would allow fraudsters to obtain dozens of doses of Tamiflu – the main drug being issued to swine flu victims.
The Sunday Telegraph has also discovered that maternity units are planning to cancel home births and planned caesarean sections if the outbreak turns into a major epidemic.
Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said government planning failures had created a response to the pandemic that already appeared to be “riddled with problems”. He accused ministers of taking “an ad hoc approach” to a situation which needed careful planning.
This week’s report by the House of Lords science and technology select committee is the first to look into the Government’s preparedness for pandemic flu. It will attack its failure to keep its promise to set up a flu telephone helpline by April when the world was on the brink of a pandemic.
This newspaper disclosed in May that the delay was caused by the Treasury, which took seven months to sign off on the deal.
The hold-up meant the Government had to introduce a stopgap flu phoneline, introduced last week, manned by staff given just one day of training.
In the meantime, NHS Direct, which should have been running the service, has made hundreds of its highly trained staff redundant.
The Lords report will also question the adequacy of advice being issued to the public, in particular that offered to vulnerable groups such as expectant mothers. In evidence sessions, committee members described the lack of public advice for pregnant women as “extraordinary”.
The advice was only publicised last week, leading to further confusion when ministers appeared to distance themselves from recommendations they had previously endorsed.
Last night senior doctors said ministers must take urgent action to avert an impending crisis.
From Saturday, doctors will not be allowed to work more than 48 hours a week, under EU rules. The change has been fiercely resisted by many senior doctors who say it will put lives at risk.
It could mean that the NHS is short of doctors just as pressure on hospitals caused by the swine flu outbreak intensifies.
Britain’s top surgeon has urged ministers to suspend changes to working hours. John Black, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, accused ministers of “having their heads in the sand”.
He said: “The courageous thing to do would be to step in and suspend the 48-hour limit for the whole of the NHS, once we come under pressure, but that would require political leadership. I don’t expect it to happen.”
Mr Black said despite warnings the Government had made no useful concessions over the rules which he says will put lives at risk, and “devastate” the training of health professionals. He will restate his plea for concessions over doctors’ hours in a meeting with Mr Burnham on Wednesday.
The weekly 48-hour limit for doctors is measured over a sixth-month period, allowing doctors to work extra hours some weeks, if they then cut back on others.
Doctors can opt out of the directive on a voluntary basis, but only individually, throwing rota planning into “chaos”, according to senior doctors. They want whole departments or specialities to be allowed to suspend the rules.
Both Mr Black, and John Heyworth, the president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said they did not expect the introduction of the working directive to have an immediate impact, but they fear it could cause shortages of doctors by September, when flu cases may soar. Mr Heyworth, an A&E; consultant at Southhampton General Hospital, said: “There is a triple whammy heading inexorably our way – the directive, doctor rotations, and swine flu, and the impact of all of this happening at once is unknown.”
He said doctors had explained their concerns to ministers about the changes to working hours “at great length”. Last night the Government defended the operation of its Pandemic Flu Service. It said that on the first day of the service, Thursday, it carried out more than 58,000 assessments, and almost 6,000 courses of antiviral drugs were collected in England.