There is “no evidence as yet” that the winter flu outbreak is worse than usual, England’s interim chief medical officer has said after senior GPs warned that they feared a crisis was looming.
Professor Dame Sally Davies said rises in cases were being carefully monitored but also conceded that she would have preferred ministers not to axe the annual flu jab publicity campaign as part of spending cuts.
As a doctor, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she did not like “leaving things to chance”.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said lower immunisation rates have increased fears that a normal seasonal flu outbreak could prove much more serious this time.
Fewer patients in at-risk groups - including pregnant women and those with diabetes and heart disease - are coming forward for the seasonal flu jab - which also protects against swine flu.
Dame Sally urged people to get the jab but added: “We have no evidence as yet that it is worse than usual. The figures are as they were the year before the pandemic.”
The numbers of people going to their GP with flu was “bang in the range” for the season, she said.
“But there are two differences: the first is that the week before it was quite low so it took off last week so we are clearly following it carefully; and the other is that we are getting quite a lot of people going into hospital because they are sick who are under 65 and that is not a usual thing at this time of year.”
Dame Sally said the proportion of over-65s vaccinated so far this year was 2% down on last year - but said it was too early to say whether axeing the publicity campaign was to blame.
“The government took a decision not to use the marketing campaign this year,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme although local action was continuing.
“I would prefer to have done it because I believe in belt and braces. I am a doctor - I don’t like leaving things to chance. But I can see that it’s worth trying whether we can get there in the way we are.
“Let’s get it into perspective: it is marginally lower than last year.”
Asked if ministers should restore the marketing campaign next year, she said: “We will only decide the lessons at the end of the winter.”
Chairman of the BMA’s GPs committee Dr Laurence Buckman has written to the government urging it to step up its publicity campaign.
Figures out on Thursday revealed 17 people have died from flu so far this winter.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said 14 deaths were from swine flu and another three from flu type B.