NHS prepares for 65,000 deaths from swine flu

'Worst case scenario' projected by Chief Medical Officer 255,000 new cases as pandemic claims 29 lives

The NHS is planning for up to 65,000 deaths from swine flu, between three and 10 times the normal winter flu death rate, the Chief Medical Officer says.

The figure was a "reasonable worst case scenario", to allow the health service to put in place "robust" plans to deal with the pandemic's first wave, the full scale of which will not be known for months. It was not a prediction of what was expected to happen, Sir Liam Donaldson said yesterday.

"We cannot give an estimate of the likely deaths. It is far too early, and there are not enough cases on which to give even ballpark figures," he said.

The swine flu pandemic is growing exponentially with 55,000 new cases in the past week, twice the number in the previous week. There have been 29 deaths across the UK, up from 16 the previous week, and the number of people admitted to hospital because of the virus has doubled to 652. There was a "massive surge" in consultations with GPs last Monday and pressure on the NHS has become intense, Sir Liam said. In response, he announced the launch of the National Pandemic Flu Service, a dedicated internet and telephone helpline with 2,000 operators, to take the pressure off frontline medical staff.

Planning assumptions for the NHS, published yesterday, show that up to half of all children may eventually fall ill with swine flu. Although the virus is still mild in most people – and there is no sign yet that it is mutating – it is targeting younger people. The hospitalisation rate for the under-fives is four times that for other age groups.

Meanwhile a report published today warns that the UK's GDP could fall by 5% in the wake of the swine flu outbreak. The study, by Oxford Economics, said there was a significant risk that the economy would tip into deflation. This could generate a vicious cycle which postpones economic recovery for another couple of years, according to Channel 4 News.

Infection rates are expected to be lower in older people. This is one of two unusual features of the pandemic – that it is happening in summer and is worst in the young. Seasonal flu is normally worst in winter and targets the elderly.

Overall, the plans require the NHS to prepare for 30 per cent of the population, totalling 18 million people, to succumb to the illness over the coming winter. Up to 2 per cent could require treatment in hospital – amounting to 360,000 people – a quarter of whom may need intensive care "if it is available". The death rate could range from 0.1 per cent – 19,000 deaths – to 0.35 per cent, or 65,000 deaths. For comparison, there were 6,000 deaths from winter flu in 2002-03, mainly among the elderly.

The rise in cases in London levelled off last week, but it was still the area hardest hit, with "exceptional flu activity" across the capital.

To ease the pressure on GPs, the National Flu Pandemic Service, to be launched next week, would allow patients to self-diagnose swine flu from their symptoms on the internet, or by calling a dedicated telephone helpline.

Once diagnosed, patients will be a given a unique identification number and told where to collect their supply of anti-viral drugs, to be picked up by a "flu-friend", relative or neighbour, to avoid unnecessary spread of the virus. Asked if the internet service would be open to abuse by people eager to get their hands on the antiviral drugs, Sir Liam said: "There isn't a simple way round that. We have to put our trust in the public."

He warned that anyone who obtained drugs under false pretences, and later needed them for genuine reasons, would be identifiable by their code number and would face "a very uncomfortable discussion with their GP".

He was unable to say how many of the 29 deaths so far attributed to swine flu in the UK had underlying conditions. Results of the post-mortem examination of Chloe Buckley, the six-year-old from west London, who died last week are still awaited.

Last night it was reported that a six-year-old boy had died of swine flu in Kent and his school had been closed. Local health authorities refused to confirm details beyond saying they were investigating a swine flu case.

The plans say that the pandemic may unfold in a single wave or multiple waves, separated by periods when cases reduce. Some experts believe the pandemic will subside in August, after the schools close and people depart on holiday, and return in the autumn, peaking in October or later. But if the current soaring number of cases is sustained, up to 10 per cent of the population may be infected by the end of August. A pandemic vaccine is currently in production and first supplies are due in August with enough for half the population by the end of the year. However, it will be well into 2010 before the vaccine is available for the whole population. T

Yesterday, the US President Barack Obama earmarked $1.825bn (£1.11bn) in emergency funding to help fight the spread of swine flu. The money is part of $7.65bn already approved by Congress for use by the US Health Department.

High-profile victims: Cherie Blair cancels jobs

Cherie Blair has suspected swine flu, it emerged yesterday.

The wife of the former prime minister has pulled out of a series of public engagements because of the illness. It is understood she was identified as likely to have the virus on Tuesday. Tony Blair and the couple's children have not shown any signs of being infected.

Mrs Blair has been given a course of Tamiflu, and told to rest. The QC had been due to pick up an honorary degree at Liverpool's Hope University today, and also cancelled a staff barbecue to ensure the virus was not passed on.

Mrs Blair is one of several high-profile personalities to have drawn attention to the virus. It recently emerged that Harry Potter actor Rupert Grint had recovered after a mild case of the virus. His illness didn't hold up filming of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince but the actor said he had to be off set for a week.

Earlier this week boxer Ricky Hatton's publicist was quick to rule out swine flu after he was admitted to hospital in Manchester suffering from stomach cramps and vomiting.

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