Don’t ring the flu line – call Mike.jpg

Don’t ring the flu line – call Mike

By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]

Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

A small fortune has been spent by the UK government on informing the public about the swine flu pandemic, or should I say on propaganda.

The difference is that a government gives out information when it has a firm policy, which it wishes to share with the electorate. When it has no fixed policy, it floods the media with propaganda, hoping this will be perceived as information.

I remember, in the early years of Tony Blair’s New Labour, visiting my doctor’s surgery. While I was waiting to see him, I picked up a brightly-coloured booklet entitled something like, “How your new Health Service will help you”. I flipped through it but there was nothing substantial except to say that I would soon notice ways in which the NHS would become more ‘patient friendly’, such as surgeries being open longer in the evenings, so patients could see their GP after work, rather than have to take time off.

I remember looking round the waiting room and noticing, for the first time, a bank of flowers near reception and a child’s play pen at the back of the room. I thought at the time that it would take more than a bit of window-dressing to bring back confidence in a service where referral times for hospital consultations were still around the six-month mark.

Fast forwarding to 2009, a case of swine flu was first confirmed in the UK in April. At first, it was diagnosed as a fairly mild strain of the virus, but once people were reported as dying from it in a number of the, by now, 100 countries affected, the propaganda machine clicked into gear. The government dropped a leaflet through every door in the country outlining the symptoms and advising any suspected sufferer to contact their doctor or the NHS Direct helpline immediately.  

Within days, the media was reporting ‘experts’ from all over the place as forecasting millions of deaths in the UK alone. The problem for the government was that, at that time, it had no supplies of the anti-viral Tamiflu with which to counteract the virus. Official forecasts for an availability date were as far away as September.

Then, somehow, warehouses full of Tamiflu materialised, but, by then, GPs and the NHS helpline were so overworked with emergency calls, they were at breaking point, so another government master plan was drawn up. It now had shed-loads of the anti-viral, a population screaming out for it, so the obvious way to get it to them was by a scheme of self-diagnosis – and that is how the National Pandemic Flu Service was conceived.

Launched by massive publicity on TV and radio and double-page spreads in all national newspapers, people were now given a check-list of symptoms to look for. If you felt you had ticked a sufficient number of boxes, there was a helpline to ring, or a web site to visit, where you would be given details of how to obtain your supply of Tamiflu.

Of course, these help lines had to be manned, so thousands of previously unemployed people were recruited within hours, to take the calls, mostly without any medical qualifications at all. They worked through the check list and, if satisfied that the criteria had been met, gave the caller an identity number and details of where they, or a friend or family-member, could pick up a supply of the anti-viral. It was here, of course, that the true nature of the British character was revealed.

Something for nothing? I’m having some of that. Within days, employers were being inundated with sick notes and children were being kept away from school. I am not suggesting for a moment  that all these cases were malingerers, but anyone who has done even scant research into the UK Benefits System will know that there are plenty of people out there ready to take advantage of yet another  ‘freebie’.

Government health officers had maintained throughout the epidemic that the most vulnerable age groups were the young, and the elderly who were already suffering from another underlying health problem. So it was, then, I was sitting at the piano, in the hotel in Cornwall where I played every Saturday evening, when I suddenly felt an aching in my limbs. I thought nothing of it, but the following day, when I was playing my own Baby Grand at the local Yacht Club for its Sunday Carvery, I felt the aching with a greater intensity and discovered I was sweating profusely.

I felt unable to continue so took a taxi home and went straight to bed. The following morning, I woke up feeling like death, so rang my GP who was at my bedside within a couple of hours.  “Yes, I’m afraid it looks like the dreaded swine flu,” he said after a brief examination. “I’ll write you a prescription for Tamiflu if you’ve someone who can pick it up from the local chemist.” I phoned my granddaughter who popped straight round and I began my five-day course.

My first thought was to warn anyone I may have been in contact with over the past couple of days, so I phoned the hotel and the Yacht Club. It must have been about day three of the treatment when a friend phoned. “Mike, so sorry to hear you’ve got swine flu. I wonder if you could tell me your symptoms as I woke up with a cough and a runny nose this morning.” Over the next 24 hours I received three further such calls. I tried to explain to all of them patiently that I wasn’t qualified to give them any advice whatsoever and that they should contact either the flu help line or their GP, and went back to sleep.

My course of treatment passed satisfactorily. However, two further government announcements caught my eye. One, an admission that it had been wrong to prescribe Tamiflu to those under 12 years old as it could cause more complications than at first thought. The second was that it was preparing for a second more virulent form of the virus in the coming autumn or winter. It also said it would have a new, safer vaccine ready to deal with it. I have one further piece of advice – when it does come, DON’T RING MIKE!