Hospitals will not copeBird flu plans criticised by health experts

31 March 2006

UK hospitals would not be able to cope to cope with the extra demands of a bird flu pandemic, health experts are warning today.

They have told the British Medical Journal that government's plans for dealing with an avian flu pandemic do not go far enough even though UK plans are said to be among the best in the developed world.

But Hilary Pickles, Director of Public Health at Hillingdon Primary Care Trust in London, says important lessons from the past have been missed.

These include the need to prepare for high death rates, being open with the public, and understanding population behaviour.

Many experts fear that bird flu will mutate into a form that is more easily spread between humans, leading to a pandemic.

Pandemic peak

If this then spreads to the UK the demands on intensive care units would be extremely difficult to meet, according to Richard Marsh, Critical Care Specialist at Northampton General Hospital.

Looking at data from influenza patients admitted to hospital in Asia, he predicts that between four and five times the number of intensive-care beds available in most general hospitals in the UK would be required to meet demand at the peak of the pandemic.

He added: 'We are unlikely to be able to mobilise the equipment and staff to achieve such a temporary increase in the provision of intensive care.

'The numbers of experienced critical- care staff will inevitably be depleted and agency staff will be unable to make up the deficiency of trained staff.'

However, Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said preparing for a flu pandemic was a top priority and the government had strong plans in place to respond.

Anti-viral stockpile

'Our plans include building a stockpile of 14.6 million doses of anti-viral drugs to treat those who fall ill during a pandemic. We have also asked every NHS Trust in the country to draw up a contingency plan to respond to a flu pandemic.'

He added: 'We are not complacent and we are drawing on a wide range of expertise as we develop and improve our plans, including looking at the lessons that can be learnt from events such as Sars.'