Jayne Dowle: Flu failure takes us back to dark age of care

My sister has been ill for two weeks, one friend's husband says he felt so poorly over Christmas that even his eyelashes hurt, and a lady in the village has died, apparently from pneumonia contracted after a particularly nasty bout of flu.

I don't want to be alarmist, but we can't ignore the fact that flu is among us. Countless working days have been lost, hospitals are cancelling non-urgent cases to free up beds, and everyone has an anecdote about it.

According to the latest figures from the Health Protection Agency, 50 people have lost their lives to flu this winter, 45 from the swine flu strain H1N1, and five from another strain, flu type B. This won't include those who have died, like that lady, who was only in her 60s, from complications, and all those who are fighting for survival in intensive care.

Thank you to the Health Protection Agency for these figures. This time next year, it might not be around to tell us. The HPA is to be axed as part of the "bonfire of quangos" and its responsibilities handed over to the Government as part of a new public health service. Well, I can only hope that the public health service makes a better job of things than the Government has of handling this latest flu outbreak. The confusion we are experiencing highlights only one thing – that the NHS can't run itself.

For a start, Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, cancelled the national advertising campaign to urge vulnerable groups – the elderly, pregnant women, and those with long-term health problems – to have an annual flu jab, believing that it wouldn't have made any difference to take-up rates.

Inevitably, it was a cost-cutting exercise in disguise, devolving responsibility to individual GP practices to highlight the benefits of vaccination.

In 2009, the cost of promoting the flu vaccine rose to 15m, in response to the outbreak of swine flu that year. So you can see the thinking when last autumn, the posters were scrapped and GPs were instead urged to contact individual patients if they believed them to be at particular risk. However, it is clear that even in the most organised of surgeries, some people will be missed. And as distinguished virologist Professor John Oxford remarked in response to Mr Lansley's decision, "no person on this planet is immune to advertising".

Now Mr Lansley has been forced to play an embarrassing public catch-up. This is evidence, if any was needed, that far too many of this Government's decisions have been rushed and ill-thought, with the focus only on the bottom line. What is even worse is that flu vaccines now appear to be in short supply. Which means that the public doesn't need any encouragement to panic and rush straight down to the surgery to demand their vaccine before it is too late.

It is the responsibility of individual GPs to order their own stocks of "normal" flu vaccine. You could blame them for not having the foresight to order spares, but then again, think of the budget. Who wants to be left with fridge-loads of vaccines for which there might be no demand? It's not going to look good on the balance sheet.

In previous years, GPs had got their flu clinics over and done with in October and November, and understandably, weren't prepared for a late surge.

And really, how can they anticipate how many of their female patients might have got pregnant, or how many elderly patients could have developed respiratory problems over the winter which now put them in the "at-risk"group when a particularly virulent strain hits the population?

There is no fall-back position, which means we now have desperate GPs ringing round pharmacies trying to track down the last remaining vaccines. I don't know about you, but I would rather have my family doctor spend her time treating sick people than driving half-way across the county in search of medicine.

Pharmaceutical companies tell us they can't meet immediate demand because the flu vaccine takes six months to produce. So there is no solution, except to pray that everyone who needs a vaccine eventually gets one. But this state of affairs must surely force Ministers to question their thinking on devolving powers within the NHS.

I can't see any argument against purchasing and distributing "normal" flu vaccine stocks from a central point, as is the case with swine flu vaccines and standard childhood immunisations, thereby ensuring that there is always a national stock for emergencies.

A review will be conducted, apparently. But that "c" word will no doubt cause alarm in Government circles, seeing as ministers seem intent on dismantling the NHS bit by bit over the coming months.

I can only hope that this mishandling of the flu situation stops them in their tracks, and proves that we risk going back several generations, to a time when a National Health Service didn't exist at all, and to a time when people died in their thousands, all for lack of a jab. I don't call that progress, and I don't see how any politician could either.