The National Pandemic Flu Service has been launched in England offering the public the chance to check their symptoms online or over the telephone and get access to anti-viral medicines.

The website enables the public to self-assess their symptoms. Those who are suspected of having swine flu will be given a unique access number to enable a ‘flu friend’ to pick up their anti-virals from a collection point.

The telephone service, 0800 1 513 100, will be staffed by up to 2,000 operators who the Department of Health said would be trained for a minimum of three hours with less experience operators trained for a day.

The operators will carry out an assessment of callers’ symptoms over the telephone and allocate an authorisation number to those who have swine flu symptoms.

The DH said the Royal College of GPs will have a special liaison role with each of the call centres and feed back problems or concerns that arise during the operation of the service.

Health secretary Andy Burnham said the National Pandemic Flu Service would give patients access to information and antivirals as quickly as possible and free GPs to focus their efforts on helping those in at risk groups and patients with other illnesses.

The DH said anyone who suspects they have swine flu is advised not to go to their GP or accident and emergency departments.

However Andy Burnham added: “People can still speak to their GP if they are concerned. In fact – it is important to stress that people with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and parents with children under the age of one should speak to their GP if they have symptoms.”

The National Pandemic Flu Service only applies in England at the moment as the DH said Scotland and Wales do not yet need to switch on their service.

David Hickson, a campaigner against the use of 084 numbers in the NHS, called for clarity about whether the 0800 number would be free to callers from mobile phones or whether the DH had done a financial deal with the mobile operators to get them to waive their charges on calls to the number.

He added: “Many would feel that a 03 number, so that callers pay only the cost of a normal call – without any revenue sharing premium – would have been a fair way to handle this contact with the NHS. Not all access to NHS services is without incidental cost – we would not expect the NHS to pay for a taxi to take your flu friend to collect the Tamiflu. A charge to the financial benefit of the NHS provider such as with revenue sharing telephone numbers is a different matter.”