It is “vital” that the NHS maintains its national strength as the health service battles a swine flu pandemic, health secretary Andy Burnham has warned.

NHS managers must make sure emergency plans are followed to the letter when the pandemic takes hold, he said.

Responding to reports that the World Health Organisation was preparing to announce the first flu pandemic in more than 40 years, Mr Burnham told an audience of health managers at the NHS Confederation conference the WHO was expected to make an announcement “later today”.

He said: “It’s not a cause for alarm because it doesn’t change the plans we’ve put in place.

“We have planned very well in this country - it’s a source of pride to people.“

Mr Burnham said the NHS’s flu plan was an “extensive, detailed, broad based consensus”.

“It’s about to be tested so we’ll have to make sure people stick to the script. As conditions change, we’ll have to make sure policies and procedures we’ve put in place are followed,” he added.

He said it was “sod’s law” that he found himself facing a possible global outbreak in his first week as health secretary.

But he promised to make sure pandemic flu work was properly resourced.

He said: “By promoting the local we must not lose sight of the fact that the national dimension of the health service has always been its trump card.”

He added: “It’s vitally important that the NHS continues its preparations for a possible pandemic so increasing autonomy should not weaken the bonds that make us strong.”

Mr Burnham’s comments came hours after the government’s new flu czar Ian Dalton held a closed meeting with PCT managers about pandemic preparations.

The media was barred from the early morning meeting but NHS Confederation chair Bryan Stoten warned managers yesterday it was essential that all PCTs were represented at the session.

Chief medical officer Liam Donaldson added weight to the expected pandemic announcement when he said the threshold for declaring a pandemic appeared to have been reached.

He told the News at Noon: “It’s quite a low threshold, it only requires the disease to be in two regions of the WHO and spreading in the community. It looks very likely that they will say yes we’ve reached Level 6 [pandemic level].

Sir Liam said that as case numbers mounted it would be increasingly difficult for the health service to continue treating affected members of the public, tracing close contacts and treating them.

He said: “At some point we will switch over to being able to treat people through a … mass population basis; looking to ask them to phone a flu line and distribute antivirals that way.”

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