Complacency about swine flu is the new danger facing the UK, according to the government.
Speaking at a Department of Health briefing on swine flu yesterday, health secretary Alan Johnson commended the measured reaction to the outbreak from the public, health professionals and the media over the last two weeks. But he said: ‘In the early stages the danger was the outbreak might spark widespread panic, now the danger is compacency.’
So far, there have been 1,018 cases of swine flu confirmed worldwide, with 29 deaths in Mexico and two in the US. As of yesterday, there were 32 cases confirmed in the UK, which Mr Johnson said had ‘thankfully’ been mild.
Despite the small number of cases and limited severity of the illness in this country at present, Mr Johnson said the government’s response was justified.
This week it sent out information leaflets on swine flu to every UK household and health protection officials have closed four schools as part of a containment policy. Ministers also said this week that the UK had now stockpiled enough anti-virals to cover 80% of the popluation - at a cost of between £400-£500m, as well as millions of facemasks for health professionals.
Additionally, a stop-gap flu triage line was being developed so patients could get quick access to anti-virals in order to make up for the delay to the national FluLine, which is now due to be ready in October, Mr Johnson said.
‘I’d rather be accused of over-hyping something and exaggerating it, which I don’t think we’ve done, than not being prepared for a dreadful pandemic,’ he said. ‘I’ll take it on the chin.’
Chief medical officer for England Sir Liam Donaldson agreed. ‘We can’t be sure. I think we’d both say we’d rather have a bit of egg on our face than to watch people dying in this country on a bigger scale than other countries who had been more precautionary,’ he said.
‘Most of the experts I’ve talked to believe this is a classic start of a pandemic,’ said Sir Liam. ‘You get a bit of spluttering around of outbreaks in the spring and summer, then it goes fairly quiet for a while, and then it hits the country again in the flu season of the autumn and winter.
‘We haven’t yet seen what is happening in the Southern Hemisphere - in Australia and New Zealand - that will be very, very important. Their traditional flu season is quite soon,’ he added.