Around 97,000 people in England and Wales now have the flu, compared with 53,000 in Christmas week, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), which said the rate of infection had risen from 102 cases per 100,000 to 185 cases between Christmas and New Year, with England's central region worst hit.
Douglas Fleming, of the RCGP flu monitoring unit, said the pattern was normal for winter. In the 1989 epidemic, the rate peaked at 580 cases per 100,000 people. But flu usually goes in cycles, peaking after five weeks, meaning the next week will see many more cases.
Like the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary in Derby has had to begin storing bodies in a refrigerated lorry and two mobile fridges after the flu added to soaring death rates. The hospital, which has the only mortuary in the region, received 258 bodies between 21 December and 5 January, compared with 120 in the same period last year. The James Paget Hospital in Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth, has also had to use a refrigerated lorry as a temporary morgue.
As the bug spread south, Ian Bogle, chairman of the British Medical Association, appealed to the public not to use emergency services for uncomplicated illnesses. "You feel miserable, you feel absolutely wretched with viral illnesses, like flu, but the right place is to go to bed and taken plenty of fluids and something like aspirin and paracetamol."
Llandough Hospital, near Cardiff, was among the latest round of hospitals to cancel non-urgent surgery to provide extra beds for patients with flu and chest infections. Routine operations were also cancelled in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, because the number of elderly patients with flu had led to a 50 per cent rise in emergency admissions.
Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, defended the Government against accusations that it had failed adequately to prepare for the huge rise in demand on the NHS during the flu outbreak. "You cannot have any contingency which will not leave the system under strain if you get that sort of increase."
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "What you have to bear in mind is the situation with intensive-care beds changes hour by hour. Ideally, there are always some available, and as of 6pm this evening there were 16. Intensive-care beds are very specialised beds and they also cost a great deal.
"To run the health service you have to strike a balance between having sufficient capacity to cope with an emergency, and on the other hand having intensive-care beds, together with the one-to-one staffing that goes with them ... Frankly, I would have thought that at the moment the number of beds is more than enough to deal with an emergency."
The spokesman said the flu outbreak should not have a major impact on the availability of intensive-care beds. "The recent influx of flu-like symptoms should not require intensive-care beds. In fact, someone with flu does not need a hospital bed at all unless there are complications."Reuse content