Tens of thousands of people have faked swine flu symptoms to persuade the NHS to issue them with antiviral drugs, government data suggests.
The number of people given Tamiflu is seven times higher than the number suffering the virus, with official figures showing there were 30,000 new cases of swine flu in the week up to 4 August, yet 30,000 doses of the drug were given out on average each day for the same period.
It is feared that – unless the Government has seriously underestimated the scale of the epidemic – many of those prescribed Tamiflu are stockpiling it to be sure of having access to the powerful drug if and when they or members of their family contract the illness.
Others are thought to be using the service to get themselves signed off sick for seven days, rather than having to go to work, and in some cases it is suspected the prescriptions are being sold. The data supports concerns that controls against misuse of the drug – which can have serious side-effects – are ineffective. Patients wanting the antiviral drug simply have to contact the National Pandemic Flu Service and provide – or fake – a few basic details about their symptoms on the phone or over the internet.
Inquiries at the 19 NPFS centres, which were established to stop doctors becoming overwhelmed by the volume of swine flu patients, are assessed by staff who have limited training and are not required to have medical qualifications. Some are as young as 16.
"Either there are a lot more cases out there than the Health Protection Agency estimates, or tens of thousands who are not suffering H1N1 flu are ringing up, describing their 'symptoms', and getting antiviral treatment," said Nigel Hawkes, director of Straight Statistics, a pressure group which monitors Government statistics.
"Perhaps they all think they might have flu, or perhaps they think it might be nice to have some Tamiflu tucked away in the medicine cupboard for when they do get it," Mr Hawkes said.
Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, agreed there is a discrepancy between the number of patients and prescriptions: "Some people will be stockpiling in case they get influenza and will be making up things to get it," he said.
"Some will be getting it so they can take it on holiday, in case they get influenza while away. Some – I have no doubt – will be trying to sell it. I would hope and imagine that will be a small proportion."
But he said the system as a whole is working well, and it is better to accept an element of abuse of the system, than have every swine flu patient going to a GP – which would put intolerable pressure on surgeries.
"We need the patients and the public to treat the system with respect, and understand its limitations," he said. "The discrepancy in the figures is something we need to tolerate."
The HPA reported a dramatic fall in the number of people with swine flu symptoms consulting GPs last week, from 110,000 the previous week to 30,000. However, data from the NPFS suggests between 20,000 and 40,000 doses of Tamiflu were given out a day over the same seven-day period – equal to a seven-fold discrepancy.
The side-effects of taking Tamiflu may include vomiting and diarrhoea, heart and eye conditions, psychiatric problems and nervous disorders.
A recent study indicated the side effects are particularly noticeable in children, with more than half taking the drug suffering nausea, nightmares and other unwelcome reactions.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "It may be the case that a number of the people who were diagnosed at the end of the previous week picked up their antiviral at a time when this week's figures were being counted.
"It's also worth bearing in mind that, as the HPA figures show, the number of cases could be as many as 85,000. And there will be some people who have flu-like symptoms, who pick up antivirals but don't have swine flu."
National stocks of Tamiflu are thought to be sufficient for the outbreak, with the Government having previously stockpiled enough of the drug for 50 per cent of the population. Earlier this year it was decided to increase this figure to 80 per cent.
While the number of people going down with swine flu has fallen off in recent days a second and more serious wave of the illness is expected to sweep the country in October and November.