Concerns are growing over whether primary care trusts will be able to avoid running out of flu pandemic equipment amid confusion over who should be stockpiling supplies.
Doctors say they are already struggling to get hold of protective clothing and swabs - some have even reported using swabs intended for chlamydia screening on patients with suspected swine flu.
The World Health Organisation’s flu alert level is one stage below a pandemic, with many clinicians predicting an autumn outbreak.
Department of Health guidance issued last December suggests responsibility lies with PCTs to have “contingency plans” for managing supplies.
But while it acknowledges most healthcare organisations do not stockpile equipment, it does not tell PCTs to create reserves, instead requiring they have plans to receive, store and distribute shares of national stockpiles.
HSJ understands discussions are ongoing at the Department of Health to clarify who should be stockpiling what.
The problem is likely to be one of the first that newly appointed national director for flu resilience Ian Dalton, seconded from his post as chief executive of NHS North East, will have to tackle.
He will ensure NHS organisations “build on the robust planning that is already in place” and “that NHS frontline organisations are supplied with adequate equipment and drugs”.
PCT network director David Stout warned: “What you don’t want is every bit of the health service simultaneously trying to stockpile stuff. It will result in confusion and stocks running out - a plan is important.”
Royal College of GPs chair Steve Field said responsibility lay with PCTs to ensure there were enough stocks of protective clothing, swabs and drugs.
He said: “Leaving this to individual practices is asking for problems because there are so many different providers of care now in an area - strategic leadership from PCTs is required.”
Fay Wilson, medical director of Birmingham based GP out of hours co-operative Badger, said: “If the instructions were intended to get PCTs to stockpile stuff, they weren’t clear enough because PCTs haven’t stockpiled stuff.”
An HSJ straw poll of PCTs found all had pandemic plans but there were concerns over whether they were robust enough to withstand an outbreak.
A DH spokesman said GPs should already have stocks of masks and swabs but the DH was supporting PCT plans to deliver face masks and other equipment.