The full version of the National Pandemic Flu Service may not be available in October as originally planned, despite the chief medical officer predicting that a second wave of swine flu is on its way.
Health minister Gillian Merron told the House of Commons in July that the enhanced web and telephone-based NPFS would be available “by October”.
But this week the Department of Health was unable to confirm when the full service would be launched. A spokesperson told EHI Primary Care: “It’s still the autumn but there’s no date yet.”
The service will enable patients to check their symptoms online or over the telephone and to get access to anti-viral medicines.
In his weekly update last Thursday, CMO Professor Sir Liam Donaldson said cases of swine flu had almost doubled to 9,000 in the preceding seven days.
He also said calls to the NPFS had been “substantially above” the rate over the previous few weeks in the three days before the update was issued.
He added: “"Everything suggests we are seeing the start of the second peak, but we just don’t know how big that will be.”
The DH was heavily criticised earlier this year when it emerged that the Flu Line service (now renamed the NPFS) was not ready when a pandemic was declared.
BT and NHS Direct, who have developed the service, were asked to focus instead on getting an interim service up and running. The DH launched this on July 23.
Merron told MPs in July that it had been important to make sure the interim system was fully tested before launch.
She added: “An enhanced national pandemic flu service, based on the original flu line design, is still planned to be available by October.”
Merron said there were several key differences between the interim and the enhanced service.
These include: increased functionality to provide greater verification of a patient’s identity against a database; an automated interactive voice response function in addition to call centre handling; the ability for health professionals to authorise an antiviral to a patient directly, without completing the full IT assessment process; and an enhanced clinical algorithm, including separate pathways for adults and children.
In a report to NHS Direct’s June board meeting, chief executive Nick Chapman also said the full solution would be available from 1 October 2009.
In July, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said it had “significant concerns” about the delay in the operation of the NPFS.
It sought assurances that the service would be able to meet anticipated demand and be fully operational by autumn, to meet the challenges of the anticipated second wave of swine flu.