Public health leaders have condemned Government plans to tackle winter flu as "irresponsible" and "naive".

The Department of Health has decided not to fund a long-standing "Catch it. Kill it. Bin it." advertising campaign, which reminds people about good hygiene – crucial in preventing the flu virus from spreading. It has also decided there is "no merit" in a national campaign to encourage people to be vaccinated.

For most people flu is unpleasant and inconvenient, but it can be fatal in vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and in pregnant women. More than 600 people died last year and hundreds were admitted to hospital.

Last winter the flu adverts were reinstated after poor uptake of vaccines and pressure on hospital beds forced the Health Minister, Andrew Lansley, into an embarrassing U-turn in January. Professor Lindsey Davies, President of the Faculty for Public Health, said DH's plan to "wait and see" again indicated a failure to "learn lessons from last year's mistakes".

"Flu spreads fast, so it makes no sense to wait until it is widespread before reminding people about basic hygiene. If the Government is serious about maintaining our economic productivity, it should be doing all it can to keep people well enough to work," she said. "It is naive to think GPs can reach everyone in at-risk groups, because many people are not registered."

The DH also rejected calls for flu vaccines to be centrally ordered, despite shortages in some parts of the country last winter. Alan Maryon-Davis, Professor of Public Health at Kings College London, said: "With Primary Care Trusts now in meltdown, I worry flu vaccine supplies will be disrupted or delayed. It's crucial the NHS changes don't put lives at risk." A Department of Health spokesman said a targeted approach was best. "GP surgeries should contact individuals in the at-risk groups so they can be vaccinated," he said.

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