An extra 12 million doses of swine flu vaccine are being made available to GPs, England's Chief Medical Officer announced yesterday, in a tacit acknowledgement that the NHS had failed to meet a late surge in demand for the jab.
The Pandemrix vaccine made by GlaxoSmithKline was left over from last year's pandemic and will be supplied to GPs who request it from today. However, it only protects against swine flu, unlike the seasonal flu vaccine, which also protects against two other strains of the virus as well as swine flu.
Another 11 people died from flu across the UK last week, taking the total to 50, but other figures suggested this winter's outbreak may have peaked. Flu jabs obtained today, which take seven days to provide partial immunity and two to three weeks to provide full immunity, will offer diminishing benefit if the outbreak subsides.
Cases of flu recorded by GPs dipped to 99 per 100,000 of the population this week after rising throughout December to 124 per 100,000 last week. Calls to NHS Direct fell and the number of people in intensive care rose to 850 before falling back to 783, compared with 738 in the previous week.
Dame Sally Davies, the interim Chief Medical Officer, said: "We may be nearing the peak. We have not got a crystal ball and we cannot be certain. The numbers in critical care are still rising but not on the same trajectory – it is much improved. It looks like the beginning of a plateau. Only next week will tell."
Recorded cases drop each year over Christmas because there are only three working days for reporting, and may rise again next week.
Health department officials earlier said they were "mystified" by reports from GPs of a shortage of vaccines in some parts of the country. GPs are responsible for ordering their own stocks of vaccine in the summer based on their experience the previous winter and 14.8 million doses had been distributed.
Dame Sally said: "We hear reports of a mismatch between vaccine supply and demand. The data we have is there should be enough in the system. GPs who run out should get extra supplies from neighbouring practices of the primary care trust."
However, she went on to announce that she was writing to GPs to tell them they could order last year's pandemic vaccine to cope with the shortages. "The message to the public is: if you need the vaccine because you are in an at-risk group [pregnant or with a chronic condition such as asthma] you can get it," Dame Sally added.
Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health, rejected a suggestion that it was a "second-class vaccine" because it was left over from last year and only provided protection against one strain of the virus (H1N1 swine flu) instead of three.
"The key is to protect as many people as we can while flu is still circulating. H1N1 is the dominant strain," he said.
There were six deaths in Scotland last week, taking the total to 10 with 61 people in intensive care. The death rate of one in six is more than three times that in England. Officials were unable to explain the discrepancy but experts believe deaths are being under-counted in England.
One of those who died this week was 32-year-old Sarah Applin, of Thurston, Suffolk, following swine flu complications two weeks after giving birth to a son at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds. Her parents, Jane and Barry Waterman, said: "Our daughter sadly died of complications with pneumonia following treatment for swine flu. We would like to strongly urge any person at risk, especially pregnant women, to have the flu vaccination."
Family members said Mrs Applin, who died on Tuesday, gave birth to her son, William, by Caesarean section on 22 December. Mrs Applin and her husband, Richard, also have a four-year-old daughter.