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National swine flu call centre 'to take pressure off GPs'

By Lilian Anekwe

Plans to implement the national pandemic flu service will be rushed through in order to relieve the spiralling swine flu pressure on GPs, the Chief Medical Officer has announced.

Sir Liam Donaldson announced today that, in response to soaring GP consultation rates for influenza-like illness, ministers will finally bring in plans to allow patients to use a national telephone line and website to access antivirals.

Outgoing health minister Lord Darzi had previously told the House of Lords the service would not be available until October, but in the face of a ‘massive surge' in consultations and calls to GP practices, the service will be brought in to allow patients to be diagnosed and access antivirals either over the phone or through a website, Sir Liam said.

So far 29 people in the UK have died having contracted swine flu. The most recent Health Protection Agency estimates are that there were 55,000 new cases of swine flu in the last week.

RCGP surveillance data shows consultation rates for influenza-like illnesses have risen 50% over the past week, from 52 per 100,000 in the week ending July 5 to 73 per 100,000 in the week ending July 12.

Data drawn from the QSurveillance program, based on a network of 3,300 practices, show what Sir Liam described as a ‘massive surge' in the weekly rate, which is now at 87 per 100,000 – higher than the peak activity in winter 08/09 – with the highest rates seen in children aged one to four and five to fifteen.

In three PCTs in the West Midlands, which has around 40% of the national cases, practices have been dealing with up to 60 cases a day, in additional to around 200 telephone calls a day.

‘Since the last week we have seen a climb in consultation rates', Sir Liam said. ‘The national picture conceals areas like hotspots where the activity is absolutely intense. We can't have a situation where GPs are overwhelmed, patients are being turned away and GPs can't get on with the rest of their work.

‘As a result of the pressure on the NHS our advisors have told us to move to make the national pandemic flu service available.'

‘By the end of next week we will be making available, over the internet and a telephone line, a way for patients to be assessed and access antivirals without having to go and see their GP. This will take the pressure of healthcare workers and allow them to deal with the most severe cases.'

But Sir Liam denied patients would abuse the system in order to access Tamiflu, saying that the Department of Health would ‘have to put its trust in the public'.

Once diagnosed patients will be given a unique code to identify them as already having been issued a supply of Tamilfu – to prevent them for obtaining multiple doses

Sir Liam added: ‘We are not saying that everyone has to use the service and we will keep the route to the GP open. This is designed to relieve pressure on GPs but there will be some people who choose to make use of the traditional route to medical help.'

The Department of Health hope the new flu helpline will take pressure off GPs The Department of Health hope the new flu helpline will take pressure off GPs

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