The unprecedented level of interest in a website to help diagnose swine flu was down to curiosity rather than people visiting the site because they had the disease, the Government's Chief Medical Officer said today.
The National Flu Pandemic Website, which launched at 3pm yesterday, was receiving 2,600 hits per second - or 9.3 million hits per hour - at around 5pm.
The huge volume of traffic caused the site to temporarily crash but it was running smoothly again a short time later.
Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson insisted that the majority of people visiting the site had done so out of curiosity.
He told GMTV: "We would estimate around the very, very most that there were 20,000 out there when the flu line was switched on who might have had genuine flu.
"Nine million people decided to visit the site because there was such intense media interest in this story and many, many more people were aware of it than if it had moved into use in a routine way."
Sir Liam insisted that the message that swine flu was not generally a severe illness was getting through to the public.
Acknowledging that 9.3 million was a very high figure, he said: "What the evidence shows so far - and I've just had a briefing this morning - is that many of the people visiting the website were doing so out of curiosity, they were starting to use the checklist and then abandoning it quite soon.
"What we can be pretty sure of is that the number of people who were visiting because they needed the service, because they had genuine symptoms of flu, was quite small.
"We expect it to settle down."
Sir Liam also played down media reports of estimates that more than 60,000 people could die of swine flu.
He said: "That's not an estimate of what will happen. What we had to produce a few weeks ago was a planning assumption for the NHS and it ranged from a few thousand deaths to, if there was a serious change in the virus and it mutated, which is not something we expect, that we might have a higher number.
"But people should not be alarmed by that. We want to be open with people - we didn't want to have a secret planning document that would cause concern and anxiety.
"We put the figures out there. They are just planning assumptions. Everything looks as though it will be at the milder and much lower end of that and indeed we are doing very well at the moment in combating the disease."
Sir Liam's comments come after new figures showed there were an estimated 100,000 new cases of swine flu last week - around double the 55,000 in the previous week.
Conservative health spokesman Mark Simmonds said the flu telephone and internet service should have been set up earlier when a global pandemic was declared.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Indeed, the fact that the website crashed yesterday, within two to five minutes of it being up and running, I think is a function of the fact that it wasn't up earlier.
"Therefore people couldn't access the information, they couldn't discover themselves whether they had the appropriate symptoms that would give them the opportunity to get Tamiflu."Reuse content