Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, was accused yesterday of creating a "phantom" flu epidemic three years ago to disguise NHS bed shortages.

The Government faced a crisis in January 2000 as the health service appeared to struggle with a flood of cases. Mr Milburn warned then: "We could be heading for the worst epidemic in the past decade."

Patients were moved around the country because of a shortage of intensive-care beds and ministers argued that worse problems were averted thanks to people turning to the newly-created NHS Direct.

But an analysis in the British Medical Journalcasts doubt on the extent of the 1999-2000 outbreak. It says: "A hospital beds crisis occurred in the winter of 1999-2000 but according to routine primary-care surveillance systems, the incidence of influenza-like illness did not reach epidemic proportions (as conventionally described)."

It said it was argued at the time that the figures on the number of flu cases were "artificially low" because people contacted NHS Direct, instead of their GP. But the BMJ contradicts that view, adding: "The introduction of NHS Direct had no impact on the number of general practice consultations for influenza-like illness and other respiratory infections."

Mr Milburn told the Commons on 10 January 2000: "The chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, has advised me that the official figures reflect only the people who have consulted their doctor and undoubtedly understate the true size of the outbreak ... That means that unless present levels of influenza activity peak very soon, we could be heading for the worst epidemic in the past decade."

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "Patients were shipped all over the country trying to find beds, so the Government effectively made up an epidemic to hide their own failures.

"The Government's over-playing of the situation caused public health fears, making the situation worse. How can the public be expected to trust the Department of Health on issues of public health if ministers create a phantom epidemic?"