Ministers defend swine flu response

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Ministers today defended their response to the swine flu epidemic and denied that the launch of the new telephone and website assessment system had been delayed.

Peers are set to criticise the government for being too slow to set up the National Pandemic Flu Service in a select committee report, it was reported today.

But health minister Gillian Merron said: "To say that the National Pandemic Flu service has been delayed, or that it should have been introduced sooner, is untrue. The service was set up at the request of GPs and the NHS and has been welcomed by them.

"Launching the service could only be done at the point where we moved from local outbreaks of swine flu to significant levels of infection across the country."

She said that the service was activated when the number of PCTs reporting exceptional levels of activity dealing with swine flu jumped to 110.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that a report from House of Lords Science and Technology select committee due on Tuesday will attack the government for failing to set up a flu telephone helpline by April as planned and will question the quality of advice being offered to vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women.

But Ms Merron said: "When I gave evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Peers were interested to hear about the preparedness of the National Pandemic Flu Service which would be, as it has been, activated when it was needed. They welcomed this re-assurance, the details of which they had been unaware."

Also today Health Secretary Andy Burnham warned that public panic over the outbreak could put extra pressure on the NHS.

He told the Observer that people should be reassured that the Government's response was well planned.

He said: "It is very important for everybody to keep a sense of perspective. It has been a mild virus in the vast majority of cases, with relatively mild symptoms from which people recover fully fairly quickly.

"If people are made unnecessarily anxious, it makes the lives of NHS professionals, who are already under enormous pressure, far more difficult as people become unduly worried."

"People should be assured that we have been planning our response to a pandemic for a long time."

He also said swine flu victims were getting Tamiflu, "quickly and conveniently" using the National Pandemic Flu Service.

Over 58,000 assessments were made by service on Thursday - its first day of operation - 89% of which were completed on the internet, and 5,584 courses of the anti-viral drugs were collected, the Department of Health said.

Mr Burnham said: "These figures show that, despite an unprecedented demand for the National Pandemic Flu Service, the phone line and website are running well, illustrating once again how wonderfully resilient the NHS and its healthcare professionals are.

"People in need of antivirals are able to get them quickly and conveniently using the new service and it is freeing up GPs to look after patients in risk groups as well as those with other illnesses.

"We're greatly encouraged that the flu service is doing the job intended, but we're also aware that the system is in its early days and we are keeping its operation under close review."

His comments came following claims by experts from the University of Cambridge, the Intensive Care Society and St George's Healthcare NHS Trust in London that English hospitals might be unable to cope with the amount of people, especially children, affected by the pandemic.

Across the whole of England, demand for beds could be 60% above the number available.

The Government insisted that it can cancel non-emergency operations to increase the number of beds available but the experts said even this would not meet demand.

But the team calculated an average of 4.5 critical care beds per 100,000 people in England. Their research was published in the journal Anaesthesia.

The Department of Health said there are 364 intensive care beds for children in England and 3,637 for adults.

New adverts for the flu hotline service were launched yesterday as part of a £2.4 million campaign to publicise it. The print adverts detail the symptoms of swine flu, including a fever or a high temperature over 38C or 100.4F.

Pregnant swine flu victim Sharon Pentleton is still receiving treatment in Stockholm after suffering a rare and severe reaction to the virus.

The 26-year-old's condition is still described as, "stable but still critical".

She was flown from Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock, Scotland to Karolinska University Hospital to be given Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) after she developed adult respiratory distress.

No beds were available for the procedure which takes blood out of the body and oxygenates it before returning it.

Staff in Stockholm said that the treatment would last several days while the lungs are allowed to rest.

The number for the National Pandemic Flu Service for England is 0800 1513 100 and the website address