The Department of Health is drawing up plans for an interim flu line after admitting that its National Flu Line Service will not be ready until October.

Health secretary Alan Johnson told the House of Commons that the alternative system would let patients call a single number and that this would generate the collection of antivirals from a distribution point.

He said the interim arrangements would not rely solely on NHS Direct “because it deals with all the other things that happen such as people ringing about heart attacks.” However, he said the helpline would have a role. NHS Direct is due to take a lead role in the National Flu Line service.

Johnson added: “We will coordinate local arrangements with primary care trusts for assessment and collection, web access and also the potential for phone services. It is critical that any system is robust and as thoroughly tested as possible before it is made operational.”

The health secretary said patients would have one number to ring, with a different system for people with hearing difficulties, and one website to contact.

He added: “An algorithm would then spark off the collection of the antiviral from a distribution point.

“The system is predicated on perhaps 28% to 30% of the population having the virus at the height of a pandemic and on their being able to order their antivirals and to receive them within a maximum of 48 hours and preferably within 24 hours.”

Johnson said the DH believed the interim arrangements were “close to replicating what we would have had with the flu line – without some of the more sophisticated elements it is true, but still with the same coverage and in the same time scale.”

There are now 55 confirmed cases of swine flu in the UK and some 4,694 across 30 countries worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation, which has set its current pandemic alert level at phase five.

The DH was urged to take action to ensure it was able to deal with high numbers of calls about swine flu after it emerged two weeks ago that the National Flu Service was running behind schedule.

The National Flu Line was supposed to be activated at WHO pandemic alert phase four or five, initially providing advice to patients with the service expanded at alert phase six to provide rapid assessment and access to antiviral treatment for symptomatic patients.

Johnson told MPs that more details on the interim arrangements would be given during a debate on swine flu scheduled for this Thursday. In the meantime, he said communications minister Lord Carter was responsible for bringing together the current interim arrangements.

Shadow health minister Stephen O’Brien claimed the contract for the National Flu Line had been held up last year by the Office of Government Commerce and the Treasury.

He asked Johnson to explain why the government had told the Select Committee in the House of Lords in March that it would be available in May when it would not be available until the autumn.

Johnson said the government was well prepared and added: “In the case of flu line the problem has been that this is a completely untested, revolutionary system and we have had our problems in the past with revolutionary IT systems that have not been tested and proved sufficiently.

Johnson said the contract to supply the National Flu Line had been signed with BT in December 2008 and that the service would be ready in October, having been fully tested.

“I can think of no worse occasion than a pandemic than for us to put all our eggs in one basket and then to fail, so a perhaps more cautious approach has been taken than in other areas of new technology. We are not willing to run the risk of running the system any earlier in those circumstances,” he added.

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