CITY leaders preparing to cope with an expected surge in swine flu deaths this winter are considering plans to hand out medicine from town halls.
And North East council bosses are in talks with health officers over worries that vital council services could be closed down as the worsening outbreak leaves more staff stuck at home.
Plans are being formed which will see frontline staff inoculated as soon as a vaccine is made available. At the same time health agencies are looking at buildings owned by Tyneside councils to see which could be used as distribution points. The civic centre, Newcastle’s libraries and sports centres could all be used to hand over swine flu medication such as Tamiflu.
The search comes amid warnings from high street chemists they face being overwhelmed if, as expected, thousands more people become ill with the virus this winter.
All the region’s councils are revising and updating their emergency plans to take account of a likely increase in staff absentee levels which could see essential services such as gritting fleets left dangerously understaffed this winter.
As a result council drivers, bin men and other staff could be put on priority lists to ensure they are given their vaccination alongside health professionals and before the rest of the region.
Margaret Whellans, group director of community based services at Gateshead Council said: “We have robust business continuity plans in place for emergencies across the borough and this includes a strategy for dealing with pandemic flu.
“Our plans will ensure that frontline council services continue to operate even if staffing levels are affected by swine flu. We are currently planning and coordinating an inoculation programme for staff which will be implemented as soon as a vaccination is available.”
Many of the plans were worked out over the last two years, when the threat of a bird flu pandemic had city planners fearing a nation-wide health emergency.
Helen Hinds, head of resilience planning at Newcastle City Council, said: “We are working with the Primary Care Trust to identify suitable public buildings from which to distribute anti-virals to the public.
“Over the last two years we have been working on continuity plans to ensure the council can continue to provide services to the public during staff shortages. This includes drawing up a list of the most important services so we can concentrate on delivering them.’’
The swine flu preparations come as church leaders in Newcastle become the latest to introduce precautionary changes. Roman Catholic Bishop Seamus Cunningham has told the diocese of Newcastle and Hexham that he and other British bishops have been left no choice but to temporarily stop some church traditions.
Priests have said there will be no Communion from the chalice, and that holy water basins will be emptied as a result of swine flu. Parishioners have also been asked not make a sign of peace with a handshake to prevent any possible flu transmissions.
Page 3 - Anti-viral points pledge >>
Anti-viral points pledge
THERE are currently just 16 anti-viral points (AVPs) handing out flu medication in the North East.
Health bosses last night insisted these were enough to meet current demand, but are monitoring the spread of swine flu to see if more AVPs will be needed. Martin Wilson, North East director of NHS flu resilience said there are "detailed plans in place to open up more as and when we feel it is necessary".
He added: "We are continually reviewing the situation to ensure that our AVPs are coping with demand, but also to make sure that we are best placed to make appropriate changes as soon as we need to. The number of AVPs that are currently open is enough to cope with the number of people currently needing to collect anti-virals.
"The AVPs are spread geographically to cover the whole region. Our plans for rolling out further AVPs are based on need; each region across the UK will require different levels of AVPs which are relevant to the population of the area concerned and of course the spread of swine flu in that locality." There are four in the North of Tyne PCT area, three for South of Tyne and Wear, five in County Durham and Darlington and four in Teesside.
Page 4 - Drugs are for the young adults first says research >>
Drugs are for the young adults first says research
ELDERLY swine flu victims should be sent to the back of the queue for anti-viral treatment when supplies of the drugs are limited, according to new research.
Scientists found there were circumstances in which anti-virals such as Tamiflu should be rationed in favour of younger adults.
The controversial strategy could be the most effective way to save lives and prevent illness, it was claimed.
The research focused on Italy, which was said to have only enough anti-virals to treat seven million people, or 12% of the population.
Mathematical modelling showed that governments should stockpile enough drugs to treat at least a quarter of their populations, assuming moderate levels of infectivity.
If supplies were lower than this, it made sense to ration the anti-virals according to age-specific fatality rates.
When swine flu followed the pattern of the great 1918 pandemic and was most lethal to younger adults, treatment should not be targeted at the elderly, said the researchers. Instead, it should be reserved for the young.
The research came amid calls yesterday for the Government to suspend EU rules which say doctors can only work 48 hours a week.
As the UK grapples with swine flu, the pressure on the NHS is mounting and staff going off sick could have a further impact, according to doctors’ pressure group RemedyUK.
It is calling for special measures to bypass the reduction in a working week from 56 to 48 hours, which comes into force for junior doctors on Saturday.
Yesterday, Health Secretary Andy Burnham warned that public panic over the outbreak could put extra pressure on the NHS.
Page 5 - Directors are given job of responding >>
Directors are given job of responding
A NORTHUMBERLAND woman has been chosen to manage the response of hospitals in the region to the swine flu pandemic.
Barbara Scott is Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s new director of flu resilience.
Barbara, who lives near Alnwick, is tasked with ensuring the trust, which manages three general hospitals and six community hospitals in Northumberland and North Tyneside, responds effectively to the pandemic.
She said: "People who suspect they may have swine flu should not come to one of our A&E departments or minor injuries units unless advised by a healthcare professional.
"They should stay at home and seek advice over the telephone to prevent the spread of infection.
"The majority of people who do contract swine flu will recover at home, however, we are here for the patients who may require treatment in our hospitals during the pandemic."
Barbara is one of 16 flu directors who have been appointed in NHS organisations in the North East.