The NHS needs to learn from the past, rather than panic about the unknown, argues Mr Cash.

Last winter, when a minor flu outbreak and poorish weather caused chaos, the number using primary care services tripled, 'bouncing' people into hospitals.

The trick, Mr Cash told a session at the NHS Confederation's conference last month, was to 'keep people in self-care and primary care'.

He told managers that they needed to map the local situation: 'What celebrations are going on. What pharmacies are open. Which GPs will be in place.'

The domestic fridge would also be a vital piece of armour in the battle to keep the NHS running, he said - people should have 'lists of which pharmacies are open' and magnets with NHS Direct's number on them.