Armed police to guard bird flu drugs

The drugs will be handed out at chemists and specialist walk-in centres to prevent doctors being overwhelmed by demand.

The new measures, contained in Department of Health documents, follow a realisation that the health service will be unable to cope as the virus sweeps through the country.

The disclosure comes as the body of an imported parrot, which died in quarantine from flu, was being tested last night to see if it had the deadly H5N1 strain of the disease which has killed 60 people in Asia. The World Health Organisation fears the strain may mutate to cause a worldwide pandemic, which could kill up to 150 million people.

Ministers believe a quarter of Britons would catch the disease within three months of it arriving in the country and are preparing for 50,000-750,000 deaths.

They are stockpiling 14.6 million doses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which lessens the effects of the disease and, it is hoped, would save many lives. But they expect GP surgeries to be overwhelmed and panic-stricken people to try to raid supplies.

Armed police will be ready to guard stocks of the drugs, though the Army will not be called in. "We do not put troops on the street in this country," said one senior source.

Chemists will be authorised to dispense the drugs and special centres will be set up.

Experts working for the Department of Health say just half the required number of intensive care beds could be provided if bird flu struck today. Professor David Menon, of the Intensive Care Society, has told a Lords committee that "current ICU resources would be overwhelmed" if just 15 per cent of patients required high-level care.

Hospital managers have been told to start working on plans to convert operating theatres into makeshift wards to cope with up to 6,000 cases a day.

A minister said the Government was considering dispatching supplies of the drugs to poultry workers as a preventative measure. "We need to be careful not to provoke panic or hurt industry unnecessarily, but we won't let commercial considerations affect our actions," said one government figure.

But the Government is poised to reject a plea at an emergency meeting of health ministers in Ottawa tomorrow from Canada and Mexico that each country should donate a tenth of its stockpiles to developing countries to head off the emergence of a pandemic.

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