The health secretary has said that the NHS is “coping well” with the severe weather and flu, despite a rise in consultations related to flu and an increase in deaths.

The latest national influenza report from the Health Protection Agency said that at least 39 people have died from flu this winter, with 36 of these related to swine flu (H1N1).

The rate of consultations for flu-like illness, recorded by the Royal College of GPs, rose by a quarter to 124 per 100,000 in the week ending 26 December, from 87 per 100,000 the previous week. At the peak of the swine flu pandemic in 2009 it was 155 per 100,000.

Some 11,193 deaths from all causes were recorded in the week ending 12 December, above the upper limit for expected levels for the time of year, according to the HPA. The report said that the cold weather and respiratory viruses were potential causes of the increase.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said in a statement: “The NHS was well prepared in advance, and it is coping well with the effects of the severe weather and flu.”
“GP practices have been inviting people for whom the flu vaccination is recommended to have the vaccine, and I would urge them to do so,” he added.

This year the seasonal flu vaccine for vulnerable groups was extended to cover pregnant women and included vaccination against swine flu after last year’s pandemic.The HPA’s report said that “the virus strains circulating are overall well matched to the current influenza vaccine”. But the latest figures said that only 43 per cent of those under-65s considered at-risk had been vaccinated - all but one of the deaths have been in this age group.

Warnings have been given that the spread of the virus could increase as children return to school this week. Following pressure from the opposition, the government has now re-launched the cancelled public awareness campaign on flu, a move which shadow health secretary John Healey called a “U-turn”.