Published: 01/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5984 Page 10

Imagine you're the head of press at the Department of Health.

GPs have been warned flu vaccines are about to run out. You know It is a matter of time before the story gets out.

Naturally, you'd want to ensure the government line on this story is heard first, and that you're in control. Especially as coverage of the bird flu threat is being blamed for contributing to the shortage by whipping up demand among the 'worried well'.

So far so predictable... as is, depressingly, the mistake you're about to make: Excluding unsavoury types (Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun and Mirror journalists) from a briefing because, as the DoH head of press told spin doctors' rag PR Week, you want to avoid journalists 'looking for the conspiracy theory'.

The fact that you are seen to be blaming doctors for the shortage, and those excluded are also usually very quick to take up the 'poor, defenceless family doctor' line, just compounds the disaster.

Hell hath no fury like a mid-market editor scorned, and front page headlines and leaders the following day screamed of government incompetence and capriciousness.

The Daily Mail accused Labour of playing a 'game of name, blame and shame', while The Daily Express used its front page to declare it a 'scandal' that 'vulnerable pensioners' were being forced to shell out£60 for a flu jab due to the government's 'gross complacency'. Ouch.

Meanwhile faces were also turning crimson at The Independent on Friday after it attacked the DoH's handling of the flu story.

Accompanied by a large mugshot of John Reid a gleeful comment declared it was time for the DoH to eat humble pie under the headline 'Reid's spin doctor takes the rap for bird flu cock-up'.

Sadly, the newspaper failed to notice that Mr Reid stopped being health secretary in May.

Hopefully there was enough of that pie left over.