The Department of Health’s interim flu line service is expected to be operational by next week, as the government predicts 100,000 swine flu cases a day by the end of August.
The interim arrangements for the flu line, which has had its name changed to the National Pandemic Flu Service, have been put in place because the full national flu line will not be ready until October, as EHI Primary Care revealed in April.
Last week, health secretary Andy Burnham told MPs that the growth in the number of cases meant the emphasis would switch from containment to treatment, with primary care taking the lead in diagnosing and distributing anti-virals.
He said that preparations for the interim National Pandemic Flu Service were “at an advanced stage” and that it would be ready when needed.
A briefing from NHS London says the service will go live in mid-July and, in a letter to doctors, chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson says it will be available in the “near future”.
The service will mean that patients can be diagnosed and given antiviral vouchers via the telephone or online. They should then ask a ‘flu friend’ to collect their medicines from antiviral collection points, which are being set up by primary care trusts.
London, the West Midlands and Scotland have emerged as hot spots for swine flu and NHS London said PCTs should consider setting up their own antiviral assessment and collection services if local services become overwhelmed before the national service is ready.
In a House of Commons debate on swine flu preparations last week, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said he had written to Burnham about the contingency plans for the pandemic phases.
He added: “He [the health secretary] seemed to say that there was no national pandemic flu line because the antiviral distribution arrangements were not in place, but he went on to say that the antiviral distribution arrangements were not in place because the national pandemic flu line was not ready.
"I am afraid that that is not good enough: both were supposed to be ready by the time that the pandemic phase occurred, and they are not ready.”
Burnham told MPs that sufficient collection points were in place that could be stood up within seven days. He also said the interim National Plandemic Flu Service could be activated within a short time frame.
He added: “That point has not yet been reached but I can assure him that we will update the House on that issue over the coming days.”
In a report to NHS Direct’s June board meeting, chief executive Nick Chapman said the interim solution had completed acceptance testing and was ready for deployment when needed.
He said a revised version was being developed to include a revised algorithm and requests from the Scottish and Welsh governments.
The report adds: “Work on the original FluLine (now renamed the National Pandemic Flu Service) has restarted so that the full solution (with a greater level of functionality than originally planned) will be available from 1 October 2009.”
He said NHS Direct staff had risen magnificently to the challenge of the swine flu outbreak and the consequent increase in demand for its service.