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GPs get new guidance on pandemic flu

By Gareth Iacobucci

GP surgeries will be expected to ‘buddy up' with neighbouring practices and will come under the direct control of PCTs in the event of an outbreak of pandemic flu, GP leaders have revealed.

Details of how GP practices in England can prepare and cope with a flu pandemic have been unveiled in new guidance launched jointly by the GPC and the RCGP.

The guidance, supported by the Department of Health in England, warns that a pandemic will place the NHS under ‘unprecedented pressure', that will stretch GP services beyond their current limits.

The guidance, containing detailed instructions on how GPs will need to adapt from their usual ways of working, predicts an average practice could have an extra 186 cases of flu a week during a pandemic's peak.

In recognition of the huge strain an outbreak would place on GPs, every practice will have to follow ‘command and control arrangements' from their PCTs to enable co-operative working, and will be expected to ‘buddy up' with neighbouring practices to share resources and exchange staff if necessary.

Patients with flu will get access to antiviral medicine via a new 24-hour National Pandemic Flu Line Service, and not via their GP surgery.

Changes to the death certification process will see retired doctors brought in to ease the pressure on local services, while additional capacity in the health service will be created by prioritising services and patients in ‘a systematic and ethical manner'.

Practices are also advised on how to minimise the spread of infection, for example by setting up separate waiting areas for patients with flu.

The guidance recommends that practices should ensure these contingency plans are in place by 31 March 2009.

Non essential services such as QOF will be suspended where practices are involved in responding to an epidemic, with directions coming from local authorities. Practice income will be protected.

There were three flu pandemics in the last century which led to public health emergencies, in 1968/69, 1957/58, and 1918/19.

Many experts believe another pandemic is overdue, but stress it is impossible to predict its timing.

Dr Laurence Buckman, Chairman of the GPC, said: ‘We've seen over Christmas how seasonal winter pressures put strain on the health service but this is in a situation where the system is still operating on a normal basis.

‘During a pandemic the NHS would have to work differently - it's a major health emergency and as such requires a totally different way of helping patients. Family doctors need to be prepared for this and this guidance has been produced to help them with their planning.'

Dr Maureen Baker, Honorary Secretary at the RCGP said: ‘This guidance provides practices with clear instructions on the steps they need to take now and during the pandemic, so that they can look after people with flu, and other emergencies, as well as can be done in very difficult circumstances.'

Dr Laurence Buckman: pandemic would need systems to change Dr Laurence Buckman: pandemic would need systems to change

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