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How nurses will tackle the flu pandemic

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New plans reveal the key role that UK nurses would play in an influenza pandemic, reports Louise Tweddell.

NHS organisations nationwide are currently digesting the ‘first national blueprint’ on preparing for an influenza pandemic – now a question of when, not if – according to leading scientists.

Pandemic Flu: a national framework for responding to an influenza pandemic, and several accompanying documents, were published last month (NT News, 27 November, p2).

They bring together and replace previous plans drawn up by individual UK governments and departments.

The role of PCTs in local planning, coordinating a response and informing how and when to react, is reinforced.

However, the part that nurses would play in the event of a flu pandemic reaching the
UK has never previously been stated clearly. The updated framework goes some way to redress this.

One of the key measures outlined is that NHS Direct and its counterparts in Scotland and Wales will run a nurse-led National Flu Line service.

The helpline is intended to be the first port of call for people who are worried they have contracted the virus. Helpline workers will be able to authorise the collection of antivirals from pharmacies by friends or relatives, where necessary.

Linda Bailey, RCN health visitors and public health forum chairperson, said: ‘It had been suggested that each PCT should set up its own helpline and that was a real cause for concern. Based on algorithms, it would have needed 78 people per PCT.

‘NHS Direct are the experts and the right people to do it.’

Along with the main framework, 10 consultation documents have been published on topics such as ethics and prioritising patient care. Once finalised, they will sit alongside the new framework.

For nurses, the most relevant draft – Human Resources guidance for the NHS – outlines how they will be deployed. It tells organisations how to plan ahead with their current workforce and how to communicate their plan.

To ensure that vital services and emergency responses can coexist, the guidance tells organisations to consider setting up a pool of nursing staff from outside their organisation – including unemployed nursing graduates and retired nurses
(NT News, 18 September, p2).

The Department of Health has also said that it was working on changes to legislation that would allow for the emergency registration of final-year students in a pandemic – a potentially controversial move.

The NMC is separately looking at how these final-year nursing students could be used, under supervision, to best supplement fully qualified clinical staff.

Ms Bailey said she approved of the idea, but warned that students must not feel pressurised into situations they were unable to handle.

‘I’m not saying this is a preferred way of working but there are enough of us out there who were nursing students who used to work on the wards anyway,’ she said. ‘This would only return in a disaster situation, and in times like that you have to make exceptions.’

As well as these documents, the government has announced it intends to set aside funds to double its current stockpile of antiviral drugs – enough for half the population.

It has also announced it will purchase 350 million surgical masks for frontline staff – though questions remain over whether they will be of any practical use or are merely measures intended to reassure the public.

John Oxford, professor in virology at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine, London, and one of the country’s leading experts on flu pandemic, said: ‘They do have some effect but only for about 10 minutes and you have to use them properly. When you take the mask off, it will have absorbed the virus, so you need to dispose of it properly to prevent cross-infection – and it needs to be combined with good handwashing.’

The DH is particularly keen to promote the practice of good handwashing for both staff and the public, stating in a new campaign, launched last week, that hand hygiene will be a key defence against the spread of infection.

Professor Oxford said: ‘Taken together, all of this information is very good news. It will set an example around the world and is a huge investment in the public.

‘There needs to be a modicum of training involved with all of this, especially for students who volunteer their services.

‘But it is better to get all of this done now – you don’t want to be caught completely unawares.’

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