A UK-wide 24-hour telephone and web-based service would be the only route for people to get anti-viral medicines in the event of a flu pandemic, according to the latest guidance.

The advice from the British Medical Association’s General Practitioner Committee and the Royal College of General Practitioners, backed by the Department of Health, warns that a pandemic would put the NHS under “unprecedented pressure” and stretch general practice “beyond its current limits.”

It estimates that during a pandemic’s peak, an average GP practice could see an extra 186 cases of flu a week.

A telephone and web-based National Pandemic Flu Service will be set up for the public. The line will at first give general advice and information, backed by national TV advertising and self-care videos that will be available online and on digital screens in, for example, town centres and stations.

If a virus is isolated in the UK, the National Pandemic Flu Service will be authorised to give people symptomatic antiviral medicine. This will be the only route for patients to receive antiviral flu drugs.

A web-based Flu Line Professional Service will give doctors and other healthcare professionals access to a patient’s National Pandemic Fu Line Service record and allow them to check for previous antiviral authorisations.

The guidance says GP surgeries will be expected to ‘buddy up’ with neighbouring practices to share resources and exchange staff as necessary and that these plans should be in place by 31 March this year.

It also warns that hospitals may need to suspend services, accept emergencies only for those with life-threatening problems and – at worst – prioritise patients according to who is most likely to benefit from available treatment. The decision on when these stages are activated will be made at strategic health authority level.

However, the guidance sets out other practical steps for GP practices that should be taken now. It says practices should prepare “a really simple guide” to logging on and using their computers so that non-practice staff can access them in a pandemic if necessary.

It says each practice should develop an electronic library of staff photographs, as photographic ID will be essential in a pandemic, for example to enable clinicians to access fuel supplies to do home visits.

Dr Laurence Buckman, chair of the GPC, said a pandemic would be a major health emergency that would require a totally different way of helping patients.

He said: “Plans are being put in place now to make sure general practice and the health service not only copes during the crisis but does the best it can do to minimise the spread and impact of a flu pandemic in the UK.”

In a separate move, specialist software company iQ Medical has announced that more than 2,000 GP practices will receive software to help them complete pandemic flu contingency plans.

Graham Poulter, manager director, told E-Health Insider: “We are now working with over 30 PCTs and in detailed discussions with another 42, which will mean over 50% of GP practices in England will ultimately be well prepared.”

Link: Preparing for pandemic flu – guidance for GP practices