A BITTER row broke out yesterday over claims the Government had cancelled a programme to vaccinate children under five against flu to save money.
Ministers angrily rejected allegations they had dropped the plans in order to save 85m.
Latest figures show cases of flu have dramatically risen, fuelled mainly by its spread among children.
Fewer numbers than expected in vulnerable groups have been immunised against the illness, prompting heavy criticism of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's decision to axe a nationwide advertising campaign.
Experts on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had initially advised that it would be "prudent" to repeat last year's swine flu jabs for under-fives.
But Department of Health officials said the advice had been revised in July against providing the inoculations to the age group, before being accepted by Ministers.
Labour Shadow Health Secretary John Healey said: "The serious problem lies with the groups that are most at risk, like children. That has come because the Government axed the annual advertising campaign and they cancelled the flu jab plan for the under-fives.
"The Health Secretary has been silent. The only attention he's paid to preparations for this winter's flu outbreak was to axe the autumn advertising campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated and make them aware of the risks.
"He made the wrong judgment which has left many people without the flu protection they should have."
Mr Lansley said: "There is no additional merit in a vaccination advertising campaign for the general population when there is already a targeted approach for those who need to be called.
"People who are at risk, and indeed pregnant women and over-65s, should be taking up the offer of vaccination – they have been contacted by their GP surgeries."
Health Minister Simon Burns accused Labour of stooping to a "new low of political opportunism".
Evidence suggests under-fives are significantly more likely than adults to need hospital care if they develop swine flu.
On Friday, official figures showed the number of people in critical care with confirmed or suspected flu in England had more than doubled in a week to 460. Of those 26 were under five.
Meanwhile the parents of a 17-year-old girl who died after contracting swine flu have described her as "a blessing in so many ways".
Natalie Hill, of Hull, died in hospital on December 15 after catching the H1N1 virus.
Her parents, Michael and Carol, told their local newspaper how Natalie had been in Hull Royal Infirmary because of complications caused by a rare condition she had since she was born.
This condition left her blind and deaf and her mother was her primary carer.
Mr Hill, 52, told the paper: "She gave us so much love – something that parents with healthy children can so easily take for granted.
"We are so sad she was taken from us just before Christmas."