Members of the House of Lords have told the government they have “significant concerns” about the delay in the launch of the full National Pandemic Flu Service, which is not due to be ready until 1 October.
In a report on pandemic flu, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said the government appeared to be “under-prepared” for the current swine flu outbreak.
Committee chair Lord Sutherland praised the government for stockpiling anti-viral medicines, but said he was “surprised and disappointed” that it had yet to carry out ‘whole system’ testing of how services would respond to a pandemic.
The committee said the ‘interim’ helpline and website that launched last week to enable patients to receive anti-virals without seeing a clinician should have been available sooner.
It also sought assurances that the ‘enhanced’ service due in October would be able to meet demand.
Lord Sutherland said the National Pandemic Flu Service had been set up with "a hop, skip and a jump" and added: "We are not convinced there was good long-term planning going on.”
The report says the committee was told in November 2008 that the system was “being delivered and tested” in early 2009. However, in April health minister Lord Darzi announced that the full service would not be ready until the autumn.
Public health minister Gillian Merron told the committee this month that the full service had been delayed because the DH wanted to get an interim solution up and running and because it was important to make sure it was properly tested.
The report calls for a more detailed explanation. “We also seek reassurance that the enhanced service will be able to meet anticipated demand and that it will be fully operational in the autumn, in good time to meet the challenges of the anticipated second wave of influenza.”
The Department of Health said it was only possible to launch the full service when levels of infection were “significant”.
The Lords report also seeks clarity about the design, scope and terms of reference of the interim service and whether the service is separate to NHS Direct or supplementary to it.
It adds: “If separate, we invite the government to set out the cost-benefit analysis underpinning that decision.”
Health secretary Andy Burnham defended the timing of the launch of the National Pandemic Flu Service, but welcomed the report which he said would help inform the government’s response to the pandemic.