The NHS risks being inundated with flu victims because of a “shockingly low” vaccine uptake, a senior doctor has warned.
Prof Steve Field, the former chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, also said it was “ill-advised” not to have had a public awareness campaign about the need for seasonal jabs.
He was speaking to The Guardian newspaper after the Department of Health revealed 302 people were in intensive care with flu.
It is unclear how many have swine flu but they are expected to be in the majority.
Prof Field told the Guardian: “Rates of uptake are shockingly low. It was ill-advised not to have the public awareness campaign on seasonal flu jab uptake that we usually have, because we knew that the public and healthcare professionals were likely to become complacent after last year’s swine flu pandemic wasn’t the serious attack on the country that we thought it could be.
“With the added winter pressures on the NHS, we need NHS staff to be vaccinated as soon as possible, so that they can continue working, and we also need pregnant women and people who are vulnerable to have a flu jab that includes the swine flu vaccine as soon as possible.”
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley briefed Cabinet colleagues yesterday on the flu situation and told them the NHS had plenty of capacity to deal with the upsurge in cases.
As of Monday this week, there were 24 children under five in critical care with confirmed or suspected flu, another 12 aged five to 15, and 243 in the 16 to 64 age group.
There were also 23 people aged over 65 in critical care.
So far this flu season, 14 people have died with confirmed swine flu and another three from flu type B.
Last year, 474 people died from swine flu.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, interim chief medical officer for England, said this season’s flu was “just winter flu” but with swine flu as the dominant strain.
“We have not got a pandemic,” she said, adding that a vaccine was available and there were levels of immunity in the community.
However, she urged at-risk groups to get themselves protected.
To date, fewer patients than last year in at-risk groups, including pregnant women, have come forward for the seasonal flu jab, which also protects against swine flu.