Government play down flu epidemic fears

Under-fives were excluded from this year's flu vaccination programme on medical not cost grounds, the Government insisted today as it played down concerns that the UK was headed for an epidemic.

The Department of Health defended its handling of the winter outbreak amid Labour criticism of the lack of dedicated protection for young children and the decision to axe the annual flu-jab awareness campaign.

Days after the latest figures showed a dramatic rise in the number of flu cases, shadow health secretary John Healey accused ministers of leaving youngsters at risk.

The Daily Telegraph said the decision not to offer jabs was a cost-cutting measure - saving £85 million - and reported that doctors were concerned that next week's return to school could spark the first epidemic for a decade.

But the DoH denied Health Secretary Andrew Lansley had "cancelled" the programme, saying he had simply accepted the advice of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

It had initially said that it would be "prudent" to repeat last year's jabs for youngsters but dropped that recommendation in revised advice in July, officials said.

"Our influenza immunisation programme has been designed to protect those particularly at risk from serious disease, either from influenza itself or in whom influenza would make their underlying disease worse," the DoH said.

"This means that we use an age and risk group-based approach in line with most other countries that have seasonal influenza vaccination programmes. We continue to monitor the current situation very carefully and JCVI keeps the policy for seasonal influenza vaccination under review as well."

Mr Healey told the Daily Mail: "The serious problem lies with the groups that are most at risk, like children. That has come because the Government axed the annual advertising campaign and they cancelled the flu jab plan for the under-fives.

"The Health Secretary has been silent. The only attention he's paid to preparations for this winter's flu outbreak was to axe the autumn advertising campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated and make them aware of the risks.

"He made the wrong judgment which has left many people without the flu protection they should have."

But Mr Lansley renewed his insistence that the publicity campaign was not required.

"There is no additional merit in a vaccination advertising campaign for the general population when there is already a targeted approach for those who need to be called," he said.

"We urge those who have been contacted to respond positively."

On Friday, official figures showed the number of people in critical care with confirmed or suspected flu in England had risen to 460 - more than double the figure of a week before.

Of those, 366 were aged between 16 and 64, 51 were aged 65 and over, 26 were under five and another 17 were aged between five and 15. Nine children are among the 27 people to have died from flu this season so far.

Among the fatalities, 24 had swine flu. Three suffered from another strain, flu type B, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said.

Responding to claims the return to school could result in the first flu epidemic for a decade, a DoH spokesman said: "Any predictions on flu in 2011 are entirely speculative.

"There could be an increase in cases or just as easily very few cases amongst school children."