Swine flu is spreading too fast to be contained in London and the West Midlands, ministers said yesterday.
Health officials in the two areas have been told they may abandon attempts to halt the spread of the virus – the "containment" strategy – in order to concentrate on treating sufferers.
In these areas, anti-viral drugs may only be given to those showing symptoms, and laboratory testing and the tracing of contacts may stop. Over 3,500 cases have been confirmed and tens of thousands could be emerging each week by the autumn, chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson said. The most likely scenario, he said, is that cases rise steadily through the summer – flu would normally be non-existent at this time of year – followed by an "explosive outbreak" in the autumn and winter.
The mild nature of the virus in most people had led scientists to question the strategy of treating everyone with anti-viral drugs. Advice was being sought on whether the standard treatment for seasonal flu – a couple of paracetamol and a hot drink – was sufficient for most people and the antivirals Tamiflu and Relenza should be restricted to certain groups at higher risk of suffering complications, such as those with chronic underlying illnesses, pregnant women and children.
Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, said two companies, GlaxoSmith Kline and Baxter, were ready to produce a pandemic vaccine and contracts had been signed for 130 million doses, enough for the whole population. The first doses would be delivered by 31 August with more through the autumn rising to 60 million doses (sufficient for half the population) by Christmas.