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Pandemic flu helpline to stop GPs being swamped 'not ready'

By Gareth Iacobucci

The Government has admitted that a dedicated national flu helpline designed to stop GPs from being swamped with calls from worried patients will not be up and running until the Autumn, despite the increasing likelihood of a pandemic.

The telephone service – designed to deal with a minimum of six million calls a week – is supposed to come into force when pandemic flu reaches ‘phase 5' on the World Health Organisation's categorisation scale.

The alert level was today raised to ‘phase 4', but health minister Lord Darzi admitted yesterday in parliament that the service will not be ready until autumn this year.

He said: ‘On the national flu line, we have a contract with British Telecom, and we anticipate that the flu line will not be ready until the autumn.

‘Lest we forget, most pandemics occur in waves, as we saw in Spanish flu, which was in three waves. Obviously, we are focusing all our efforts on ensuring that the line is available in the autumn.'

Conservative shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien urged the Government to act quickly in order to take the pressure off GPs and hospitals in the event of a pandemic.

He said: ‘Experts have been warning for some time now that we were long overdue another global flu pandemic, which is why we have consistently warned the Government it must do all it can to prepare the country for such an eventuality.

‘It is therefore a legitimate concern that a key part of that plan is some way off being implemented. The National Flu Line will be crucial if a pandemic were to happen in Britain, by allowing people to get the information and the anti-virals they will need to fight the flu without having to go to GP surgeries or hospitals.

‘It is absolutely imperative that the Government takes action quickly to ensure that it is able to deal with the high numbers of calls from people who will need help should the virus spread in the UK.'

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