Jeremy Laurance: Only fools try to predict what flu will do next

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The Independent Online

You wait 40 years for a flu pandemic, spending zillions of pounds to avert a global catastrophe, and it ends up saving lives. Flu experts must feel they are the victims of a celestial practical joke.

Swine flu was not what we were expecting. It came from Mexico, not the Far East, its origin was pigs rather than birds and it was mild (for most people). For a decade the world had planned for a pandemic of H5N1 bird flu which, on the basis of the 500 humans infected globally, has a death rate of 60 per cent.

Nothing illustrates better the unpredictability of flu. What will happen this year? So far the signs are good. Flu levels are low and in past years severe epidemics have begun before Christmas. Beyond that, only fools try to predict.

Were last year's measures overdone? Probably not. The planning was for severe flu because that is what you have to plan for. The main criticism by the Deirdre Hine inquiry was that the Government had not negotiated break clauses allowing it to back out of vaccine contracts.

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, is ministers' favourite maxim. But be flexible, too.