My honourable friend the Minister of State, Department of Health (Gillian Merron) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
With the global spread of the swine flu virus, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on 11 June 2009. In response to increasing pressures on front-line National Health Service and social care services, the National Pandemic Flu Service (NPFS) was activated on 23 July 2009. This was to provide a self-care service for people to assess their symptoms and, if necessary, to access antiviral medicines rapidly from antiviral collection points.
The department is today announcing the decision to stand down the NPFS with effect from 1 am on 11 February 2010. This is being done in response to the steady reduction in the estimated number of swine flu cases in the community, and is in line with our overall aim of ensuring that the operational response is appropriate to the level of threat posed by the virus. General practitioners and primary care trusts have indicated that they can now manage the clinical caseload themselves. As we did with the launch of the NPFS, we are now standing it down with the full support of the key professional bodies (the Royal College of General Practitioners—RCGP—the British Medical Association—BMA—and appropriate pharmacy organisations).
We will continue to monitor the spread of the swine flu virus, and, should it become necessary, the NPFS can be re-activated in seven days. Anyone who suspects they have swine flu from 11 February will be advised to contact their doctor for assessment of their symptoms; the doctor will issue an antiviral authorisation voucher if needed. For the time being, antivirals will continue to be collected through antiviral collection points. People with swine flu should ask their flu friend to collect their antivirals on their behalf. Antivirals will continue to be issued to patients with swine flu symptoms, under this system, free of charge until at least the end March 2010, the end of the seasonal flu period.
Many people have felt reassured by the fall in disease incidence, and the relatively mild illness that has characterised most people’s infections. Deaths, however small relative to previous pandemics, are tragedies for families and vaccination could help avoid them. The current vaccination programme is continuing and we must remain vigilant. We have therefore asked GPs to make further contact with people in the priority groups who are at higher risk from the disease and who have not yet had the vaccine. These include individuals aged over six months and in the seasonal at-risk groups; pregnant women; those who live with immuno-compromised individuals; and children aged over six months and under five years and eligible front-line health and social care workers. Good progress has been made in delivery of the vaccination programme to date but we must not be complacent. It is important that people in these groups continue to receive the vaccine, as it offers the best protection against the virus.
I would like to record my thanks to all those involved in setting up and running the NPFS. It has broken new ground in healthcare delivery and has played an important role in our response to the swine flu pandemic. With the support of the RCGP, the BMA, and the pharmacy organisations, the NPFS has been very successful in easing pressure on primary care services during the busiest times of the pandemic, allowing GPs to focus on those most ill and ensuring high volumes of people get access to antiviral medicines, when they need them.