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Flu pandemics are inevitable, so why are we so Ill-prepared?

Ministers say we're well prepared for pandemic flu, but Phil reckons they're living in cloud cuckoo land

Ministers say we're well prepared for pandemic flu, but Phil reckons they're living in cloud cuckoo land

'I phoned NHS Direct to ask about pig flu, but there was a lot of crackling on the line.'

I guffawed with laughter. 'Good one!'

My patient looked at me blankly.

'What's so funny about that?' she asked.

I straightened my face. 'I see. You weren't actually making a joke there, were you?'

And she wasn't. She had some serious concerns about swine flu.

I have a slight worry about writing this column. I'm composing it on the day that five cases of the new strain of influenza were confirmed in the UK, and at the moment life appears to be carrying on largely as normal. However, by the time you read this a week later, I have to concede it's possible copies of Pulse will be delivered onto deserted streets with packs of stray dogs feasting on abandoned corpses, and a few dozen stunned survivors striving to remould civilisation from the ashes.

On the other hand, we might be roughly where we are now and my main cause for concern will still be that Hartlepool United are not yet safe from relegation and my offside front tyre seems to be going soft.

It's hard to tell.

My instinct tells me the latter scenario is more likely, but you wouldn't think so if you'd been following the story in the press. I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets the impression Fleet Street has fallen on this new apocalyptic scenario with gusto, relieved that at long last they can report on something other than governmental sleaze.

Ludicrous claim

And I can't help but feel that our Government isn't entirely averse to the new situation either. Rather than fabricating some ridiculous defence for ordering porn films from the public purse, they can posture and pose and buy millions of useless face masks and claim, ludicrously, that Britain is more prepared than any other country for a pandemic illness.

We're not, of course. The NHS, pared to the bone, is already running at full stretch to cope with the normal run of events, and manifestly isn't managing even that.

Influenza epidemics are a historical inevitability; we've had them every few decades since records began. Despite this, there is no spare capacity built into the NHS. A few tens of thousands of people suffering from influenza will tip the whole system into abject and shameful failure - never mind the 10 or 20 million predicted in a worst-case scenario.

Back to my patient, who is convinced she has Mexican flu. 'Have you been to Mexico recently?' I ask. 'Been there? My brother was married there!' I know him, as it happens. 'Wasn't that a while ago?' 'Fifteen years, but I've seen him nearly every weekend since.' She asks if she should avoid Mexican food.

While I've been writing this article, the WHO has upped the scare factor from level 4 to 5. This means governments are supposed to enable their disaster plans and get the wheels turning. Today we had an email from the PCT saying we can expect a box of masks in the next few days. I am enormously reassured.

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland

Phil Peverley

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