Politicians are over-egging the Australian flu outbreak to mask the underfunding destroying the NHS, a leading virologist has said.
Fears have been expressed that the flu epidemic which swept through Australia and New Zealand during the southern hemisphere’s cold season might be gripping the UK.
The concerns were raised following a spike in hospitalisations and deaths due to flu-relating conditions, with Public Health England saying that flu was causing more problems in the NHS than this time last year.
University of London emeritus professor of virology, John Oxford, has previously called for the UK to be “pre-armed” against Australian flu.
However Oxford, who has more than 300 papers on influenza to his name, said the NHS’s present problems are not due to Australian flu.
‘Lack of investment’
He told the Guardian, “I don’t get the impression that anything drastic is going on (with Australian flu). The problem is there is a lack of investment, there are not enough doctors or nurses, and politicians are trying to blame the situation on influenza.
“I don’t see it causing all that many problems (at the moment). What’s going to happen in the next few weeks is another case. At this moment in time there are no signs it is a great epidemic.”
Oxford’s comments come as the NHS faces its worst ever winter crisis.
All non-urgent operations – more than 50,000 in total – have been cancelled until the end of January to help overstretched services.
Ambulances are facing unprecedented delays. Around 17,000 people waited in vehicles to be admitted to A&E over the week between Christmas and New Year, with 4,700 patients waiting at least an hour and some waiting more than four hours.
On January 2, an 81-year-old woman died at her home in Essex after calling 999 following chest pains and waiting three hours and 45 minutes for an ambulance. Another pensioner died in Portsmouth on New Year’s Day, after five hours in an ambulance and two hours in a trolley in a corridor waiting for a hospital bed.
In fact, 91.7 per cent of hospital beds were occupied during the same period – much higher than the 85 per cent considered safe.
Unite national officer Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said that although the question of the scale of the Australian flu outbreak “is best left to medical experts”, he made clear that the underfunding of the NHS is affecting patients – “whether those trapped in ambulances and corridors or people waiting for operations”.
He asked, “How can the health service be expected to cope with the upswing of ill-health during winter, when it is on a sick bed itself?
“There is every confidence that hard working and selfless NHS staff will do their best in whatever circumstances they are faced with, but frankly the NHS is starving,” Jarrett-Thorpe said.
“We know that the system is facing its greatest funding crisis since its creation and that any further pressure could lead to the real risk of collapse. The government needs to acknowledge the worsening crisis and, rather than making excuses, provide a full course of funds to get the NHS back on its feet.”