NHS flu absence ‘may reach 85%’
The NHS has plans in place in the event of a flu pandemic
The NHS may struggle to cope if there is a flu pandemic because of the number of staff who will fail to turn up for work, a report suggests.
Birmingham University researchers quizzed more than 1,000 health workers and found as many as 85% may be absent.
This is more than double the official predictions and the experts believe such a scenario could put too much strain on the health service.
But leading doctors said the NHS would cope because of the excellent planning.
Under contingency plans already drawn up, protocols are in place to allow the NHS to cancel non-emergency treatment such as elective operations.
It raises questions about the ability of the NHS to cope. The problem is that there are no easy answers
Dr Sarah Damery
GPs have also been asked to develop networks to allow the sharing of resources to cope with pressures during a pandemic.
But the report, published in the BMC Public Health journal, questioned whether this would be sufficient.
Official estimates suggest the absence rate will be something between 10% to 35%.
But the Birmingham University poll found that in a severe pandemic where many schools were closed and transport disrupted the actual figure could be more than double that.
Researchers asked a range of staff ranging from doctors and nurses to support staff and managers about how they thought they would cope.
High absence rates were predicted for each group, although doctors were among the most likely to turn up.
The most important factor that would lead to an absence was caring responsibilities to children or elderly family members, the report said.
‘No easy answers’
Dr Sarah Damery, one of the report authors, said: “It raises questions about the ability of the NHS to cope. The problem is that there are no easy answers.
“Things such as transport and accommodation can be resolved, but the major factor that would influence people staying away is to do with caring responsibilities and these are not that easy to solve.”
The findings come as the UK is braced for a pandemic.
The World Health Organization currently rates the swine flu outbreaks at phase five – one level short of a pandemic.
Professor Steve Field, the president of the Royal College of GPs, which has helped draw up the contingency plans, said: “I think the plans in place are excellent and what we have seen so far is that health workers have risen to the challenge.
“Even if the worst case scenarios are realised, I think this 85% figure will still be an over-estimate and the health service will cope.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health also played down the findings.
He added: “NHS staff have a strong professional ethic and sense of duty to help.”