Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, today published a new plan to increase preparedness and better protect the public against a possible flu pandemic.
A new clinical countermeasures strategy has been developed to offer increased protection against the effects of a flu pandemic if a ‘worst case scenario’ happened. Commenting on the plans, the WHO has again stated that the UK is in the vanguard of countries worldwide in preparing for a pandemic.
The Department has already signed agreements with two pharmaceutical companies to supply enough pandemic specific vaccine for the entire population once the pandemic strain has been identified.
The new countermeasures include plans to:
· Double the stock of antivirals to cover at least 50 per cent of the population
· Buy 14.7 million courses of antibiotics to cover at risk groups
· Purchase 350million surgical masks and 34m respirators for NHS and social care staff on the frontline.
The Government also has an existing stockpile of 3.3 million doses of H5N1 pre-pandemic vaccine for healthcare workers and will be considering all the latest scientific evidence in relation to future decisions on pre-pandemic vaccines.
Alan Johnson said:
"The threat of an influenza pandemic remains real. Whilst it is not possible to predict its timing or severity, the top priority for the Government is to do all we possibly can to protect the public. Our arrangements are kept constantly under review, ensuring we keep abreast of emerging expert evidence and advice.
"Our new plans provide the first national blueprint for the UK´s response to a pandemic flu. We are strengthening our countermeasures to ensure we have the necessary vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals to protect the population if the worst were to happen.
“We know a pandemic would have significant social and economic impact as well as a serious effect on the health of the population. A thorough and integrated response is therefore critical to lessening its overall effect.
“We have spent several years developing and testing plans with front line service providers and listening to expert national and international advice on how best to prepare the country and will continue to do that as new evidence or medical advances emerge. "
Alongside the countermeasures a new National Flu Pandemic Framework, which coordinates the responses of all government departments, regional assemblies and all public and private bodies, will set out how the UK will respond if a flu pandemic occurs.
The Framework will help public and private organisations to be as prepared as possible for a pandemic and make sure their arrangements are resilient enough to cope
Although previous pandemics during the last century have resulted in infection rates at or around 25 per cent, the new plans consider a possible ‘reasonable worst case’ scenario to ensure a robust response. This means considering an infection rate between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of the population.
Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said:
"We may not be able to prevent a pandemic, but with good planning we can reduce its impact on all aspects of society. This framework will enable organisations such as schools, businesses, transport, and the NHS to prepare for a pandemic in an integrated manner, with the full support of cross-government policy and planning.
“But many changes can be made now. Developing habits for respiratory hygiene - using tissues, disposing of them carefully, and cleaning hands - are all good practice even before a pandemic arrives."
It is recognised internationally that the UK has already made significant progress in protecting the UK and we will continue to work closely with the World Health Organisation.
Dr David Heymann, the Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment at WHO said this week:
"The UK is still in the vanguard of countries worldwide in preparing for a pandemic, and is also one of the leading global players in addressing the cross-sectoral issues in their planning."
The Department of Health has also announced ￡2M to support the Global Pandemic Influenza Action Plan, to increase vaccine supply to help develop capacity to secure vaccine supply for the developing world.
Notes to Editors:
1. The National Flu Pandemic Framework is a cross-government document that replaces previous plans produced by the UK Health Departments - the latest version of which was published in 2005. Whilst it builds upon and updates the advice and information in that plan, it also widens its scope to include non health aspects; reflecting the fact that:
a) a pandemic presents major social and economic as well as health
b) a multi agency, coordinated and collaborative approach with high levels
of public support are going to be critical to the success of our response
The National Flu Pandemic Framework can be found at: http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/dh_080734
2. The framework:
· gives guidance to public and private organisations in developing their plans and outlines how the UK´s health and wider response will be coordinated at national, regional and local level
· updates and expands previous health advice from previous plans, for instance on community care arrangements, antiviral use and how services will be accessed
· expands information on a range of subjects including decisions on school closures, international travel and effects on public gathering,
· outlines how people will get necessary antivirals through a national flu line service
· recognises that expected level of demand will mean that most influenza sufferers will need to be cared for and supported in a community setting
3. These arrangements provide for a consistent and coordinated UK wide approach, but each country has some differences in organisational structures, responsibilities and operational arrangements. Please speak to the relevant Devolved Administration for further information.
4. The clinical countermeasures strategy:
· The Department of Health awarded advanced supply contracts to GSK and Baxter to provide the vaccine for a possible flu pandemic in the summer. The contracts, worth ￡155.4 million over four years, commit both to supply a pandemic flu vaccine as soon as the pandemic strain is identified and made available by the World Health Organisation.
· Doubling the stock of antivirals to cover 50 per cent. Antiviral medicines are key to the response and we aim to make them available to all symptomatic patients as quickly as possible after the onset of symptoms. Antivirals can reduce the duration of the disease by a day or so and reduce the risk of complications. We currently have a stockpile for 25 per cent of the populations and will be extending this to cover 50 per cent.
· Buying 14.7 million doses of antibiotics, to cover at-risk groups. Antibiotics will be needed to treat the secondary bacterial infections which are likely to be the main cause of complications, and deaths, during a pandemic. Recommendations for the use of antibiotics are included in the clinical management guidelines.
· Plans to purchase facemasks for all NHS and social care staff. Maintaining the resilience of NHS and social care staff will be critical. We will ensure that essential workers on the NHS and social care frontline, caring for people with influenza, are protected. They are advised to wear facemasks when caring for symptomatic patients and to use disposable respirators when carrying out clinical procedures likely to generate fine droplets from infected patients. A business case has been submitted to Treasury to purchase 34m disposable respirators and 350m surgical facemasks for the use of health and social care workers.
· Although the available medical evidence does not support the widespread use of facemasks, I do recognise that people may want to have access to facemasks for their personal use. The Government will explore the approach that retailers are planning to adopt in stocking facemasks for sale to the public.
· Both the procurement of antivirals and antibiotics will be subject to the normal commercial procurement procedures, and we will ensure that value for money is balanced with the need to ensure that the UK is prepared
6. The Department is also launching a public consultation on possible amendments to the medicines and associated legislation. It would seek to widen powers to supply prescription only medicines to ensure patients can continue to access their routine but essential medicines if front-line staff, especially GPs, are focussed on the most seriously ill.
6. A World Health Organization´s evaluation showed that the UK´s plans are amongst the most advanced in the world. An independent evaluation of preparedness in European countries conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicines also confirmed that we are amongst the leaders in Europe. The progress made thus far was also acknowledged in a recent joint report by the Royal Society of Medicine and Academy of Medical Sciences.
7. Influenza pandemics are a natural phenomenon and have occurred from time to time throughout history. It is therefore very likely that we will face another sometime in the future with little warning and therefore need to be as prepared as possible.