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Independents' Day

Making a pig’s ear of flu pandemic planning

We all knew a pandemic of some kind was inevitable at some point – so why didn't we plan better?

We all knew a pandemic of some kind was inevitable at some point – so why didn't we plan better?

It's not as though we weren't warned. Over recent years, a string of nervous-looking infectious disease scientists have told us a flu pandemic was long overdue. Just last December, guidance from the RCGP and BMA set out a worst-case scenario in which half the population might become ill. And although most of the focus may have been on bird flu, as long ago as 2003 an article in US journal Science warned ‘the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track'. So why, when a flu pandemic was not only predicted but supposedly prepared for, did it appear to catch so many primary care organisations and Government planners on the hop?

A degree of panic was of course inevitable – a pandemic with a potential to kill millions worldwide is never going to strike without disturbing the nation's calm. But that does not explain why, days after the initial swine flu warnings, GPs were still scrabbling around for swabs and masks – or even being told to pay for them out of their own pocket. While detailed plans may have existed for operating in the midst of a full-blown pandemic, nobody appeared to know how to gear themselves up during the transition. And that delay not only impeded the ability of GPs to care for their patients, but placed them at unacceptable risk of infection.

As Pulse goes to press, it's still uncertain whether this will end up being a full-blown pandemic. But even if the UK outbreak subsides – for the time being at least – the lessons learned must not be allowed to slip from view. PCO pandemic flu plans must be specific, practical, fast to implement and capable of dealing with uncertainty during the early period of disease spread. Managers must work with GPs to ensure practices have a plan in place, particularly for ensuring potentially infected patients are isolated (by space or time) from other attenders to the surgery. And PCOs must place the wellbeing of practice staff right at the top of their agenda during the planning process. GPs cannot help their patients if they are not themselves protected from infection.


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