Published: 10/01/2001, Volume 112, No. 5787 Page 8 9

The NHS will probably escape a major flu outbreak this year, according to the Meteorlogical Office's team of specialist health forecasters.

Since 2000 it has been working with acute hospital trusts and GP co-operatives in a pilot project to help predict rises in activity caused by changes in the weather.

Senior medical consultant on the team Dr William Bird said the mild weather, coupled with the absence of a prolonged period of the so-called 'low-boundary layer' of air - mist and murk which trap germs - over the festive period should mean no significant rise in demand this month.

'We can never offer 100 per cent guarantees, but it doesn't look as though there will be an outbreak ofinfluenza A in the coming weeks. Current activity levels are very low - particularly compared with 1999-2000 - so we may have escaped. There is the other strain, influenza B - which, if there is to be an outbreak, usually happens around March. Obviously at the moment we can't make any predictions about that.'

His conclusions are backed by the Public Health Laboratory Service weekly influenza reports which show GP consultation rates dropped from 28 per 100,000 (for the week ending 23 December) to 16 per 100,000 (week ending 30 December).

With last week's cold snap, however, Dr Bird is warning that hospitals could see increases over the coming days in elderly admissions and delayed discharges.

The Met Office project, which received£1.4m of funding, has become increasingly important to the NHS since the links between weather and health outbreaks such as flu, respiratory illness, heart attacks and strokes were established. For example, Royal Berkshire Hospital says it has saved£400,000 by not sending 150 waiting-list cases to the private sector because it was told Christmas would be quiet.

The Met Office team is working with 30 acute hospital trusts and across 30 GP co-ops. But one issue damaging the performance of the project has been poor-quality IT in the NHS.

Dr Bird explained: 'At the minute the GP co-ops are working very well. Our computers at the Met get the information at around 3am and we can have that processed by 7am. The problem is with the acute hospitals. There is a mix of systems which makes things difficult.

'But it is not just a question of communication. It is actually collecting the data - sometimes in hospitals it is done by hand, and when the person has other tasks to do then it is not always possible to get the information at all.'

He added: 'It is not just a question of investment. It really needs someone with an overall vision to take on the issue and sort it out.

The work we do is useful. Many people say, 'what's the point, the NHS is on its knees'.

'But when you speak to bed managers, there is a lot that can be done once you have the information there.'