The number of flu cases being treated in critical care beds has increased by 66 per cent in the last week, according to figures released by the Department of Health.

On Monday 302 ICU beds were being used for patients with confirmed or suspected influenza, compared with 182 the previous Wednesday. Additionally, of the the 21 specialist extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation beds in the country, 16 are currently in use. 

There has also been a 74 per cent increase in the number of children and adults under 64, who are more vulnerable to the H1N1 swine flu virus - the most prevalent strain of flu this year - being treated in ICU over the period.

Interim chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies told a press briefing the north west was the worst hit region.

So far the Health Protection Agency has confirmed 14 deaths from swine flu and three deaths from influenza B since September. Of the 17 deaths, 14 had definitely not been vaccinated this year or last year. The immunisation status of the remaining three is unknown.

Shadow health secretary John Healey launched a scathing attack on the government for axing the autumn advertising campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated and claimed this had led to a decrease in levels of immunisation.

Mr Healey told MPs: “[health secretary Andrew Lansley] made the wrong judgement and it’s left too many people without the flu protection they should have.”

Uptake among at risk under 65s has fallen from 47.1 per cent this time last year to 41.5 per cent, and is about 2 per cent down on 2008 levels. At just under 70 per cent, the vaccination rate amongst over 65s was down by 2.5 per cent.

Dame Sally admitted there was no money for marketing the vaccination campaign.

She said: “There was a government freeze on media. We had to decide what the best use of resources is. We put a lot of effort into local campaigns. At the end of the winter we will see where we go in future years.”

Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the DH, said he thought that approaching people in at risk groups directly to encourage them to get vaccinated was more effective than awareness campaigns.

The Health Protection Agency has contacted the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to urge them to encourage pregnant women to get vaccinated.

Pregnant women are particularly at risk from the H1N1 virus as their repsiratory reserve decreases the further into the pregnancy they get.