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GPs hold crisis talks to prepare for swine flu outbreak

By Lilian Anekwe

GPs have today been holding emergency meetings to discuss how to react as experts warned the swine flu outbreak was likely to hit the UK.

Three months after the RCGP and the BMA launched official guidance warning that a flu pandemic would see practices put under ‘unprecedented pressure', there were fears that it could soon materialise after more than 100 deaths were reported in Mexico, with other cases soon spreading around the world.

GP practices will be expected to share staff and resources with their neighbours and put into place crisis measures, with grim predictions that the death toll of a pandemic could see between 55,000 to 750,000 excess deaths from flu in the UK alone.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson sought to re-assure MPs that measures were in place to tackle a pandemic, and said GPs and other frontline workers could be issued with face masks.

Spain is so far the closest country to have a confirmed case of swine flu but with others already reported in the US and Canada, as well as the original outbreak in Mexico, experts are warning it was ‘sensible' for GPs to assume the illness would reach the UK.

Worried callers to NHS Direct today were being told to contact their GP if they suspect they had been infected.

The Health Protection Agency circulated a flowchart to GPs providing a full list of screening and assessment guidance to GPs. It urged GPs who see patients returning from Mexico or affected US states, who have a current or recent fever above 38 degrees and a flu-like illness, to take nose and throat swabs and start antiviral therapy as soon as possible.

RCGP chair Professor Steve Field urged people returning from Mexico or other countries who have flu-like symptoms not to visit surgeries in case they spread swine flu among vulnerable people.

The RCGP and BMA said all practices should hold meetings to make sure all GPs and general practice staff were familiar with the measures set out in guidance issued jointly by the two bodies earlier this year, and ready to implement any new practices and systems should a pandemic situation develop.

Many GPs reported holding emergency meetings as they arrived at work today. Dr John Taylor, a GP in Leicester, said: 'We don't know what to expect yet but my practice had an urgent meeting amongst the partners this morning and also briefed our practice staff on the advice that's our there and what to do if any patients call or come in with concerns.'

The Department of Health insisted it already has sufficient stockpiles of the antiviral Tamiflu to treat half of the population and has placed an order for the remaining half.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said : 'It's too early to say if the cases reported will lead to a pandemic. But we have been preparing for this situation for five years.

'We have an antiviral stockpile for 33 million people - half of the population. All NHS organisations have pandemic flu plans in place ready to distribute those to symptomatic people and we have been working with PCTs to make sure arrangements are in place to do so should it become necessary.'

Susan Stokes, associate director of public health for NHS South Birmingham, said a pandemic would be ‘the biggest public health threat to face the UK population'. The trust has launched a new training programme to prepare all health workers but it is believed many other trusts are far less advanced in preparations.

Mr Johnson, who said 25 possible - but as yet no confirmed - cases were being investigated in the UK, also revealed the Government were looking into acquiring face masks for frontline healthcare staff, but ruled out prophylactic vaccination for healthcare workers for fear of 'diminishing what is at present a vital resource.'

Alan Johnson: talks to ensure PCTs are ready Alan Johnson: talks to ensure PCTs are ready

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