Emergency services plan for 750,000 deaths in flu pandemic

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The Independent Online

Mortuaries and emergency services are to be put on alert and told to prepare for up to three-quarters of a million deaths from a bird flu pandemic, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Mortuaries and emergency services are to be put on alert and told to prepare for up to three-quarters of a million deaths from a bird flu pandemic, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Emergency planners have begun to look for sites for special mortuaries, each capable of storing 1,000 bodies, and the Home Office is to hold an exercise this summer to practise coping with mass fatalities. The instruction, to go out from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the Cabinet Office body in charge of emergencies, explodes the Government's public position that the pandemic could be expected to kill only "around 50,000" people in Britain.

It shows that its true expectation is closer to the prediction made by Professor Hugh Pennington, the president of the Society for General Microbiology, in The Independent on Sunday two weeks ago that up to two million Britons could perish. The Secretariat also believes that a quarter of the country's workforce could fall ill, paralysing economic life.

A senior government official told a private seminar in London last week: "It may be somewhere between 20,000 and 750,000 extra deaths and it may be 25 per cent of the population off work. That is the shape of the event we are going to have to deal with."

He added that plans had been drawn up to confirm that emergency services and coroners had the staff and equipment to cope with such a crisis. Senior emergency planners said last week that they received official instructions at the end of last year to prepare for mass mortuaries to cope with a flu pandemic or a biological terrorism attack.

They said that most police authority areas normally had emergency mortuaries to hold 100 to 200 bodies, but they had now been asked to make provision for up to 1,000.

The authorities were now identifying greenfield sites and beginning to enter into contracts with firms to provide marquees and buildings to put on them. The planners said that these would be cooled to about the same temperature as household refrigerators, to store bodies.

The scale of the preparation suggests that the Government fears that the 14.6 million doses of anti-viral drugs it has ordered may not arrive before a pandemic. Even in a year's time, less than half of the order will have been met. The drugs have been delayed partly because ministers waited for months before making the order.

Last November an official flu exercise involving health bodies, emergency services and government - Exercise Icarus - identified the lack of anti-viral drugs as a key concern. The order was placed this month.

Dr John Simpson, of the Health Protection Agency's emergency response division, said the Government was planning more exercises, including preventing public gatherings, to stop the disease spreading.

Senior officials at the World Health Organisation (WHO) told the IoS that they predict the flu virus could circle the globe within two months.

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