The below article was published in The Guardian newspaper on Friday 11 November 2011.
Britain would remain on a "business as usual" footing in the event of a global flu outbreak - with no closing of borders or ban on mass gatherings or restrictions on public transport - under the new national plan for dealing with a pandemic.
There would be no widespread school closures or public use of antivirals to prevent the disease, under the strategy published by four UK health departments yesterday.
Although the NHS is being told to prepare for an extra 210,000 to 315,000 deaths over a 15-week period in a pandemic, the updated plan demands a "proportionate" response to an emergency and distinguishes between low-, moderate- and high-impact measures, depending on the severity and spread of the virus.
Ministers appear determined to show what they regard as more measured, but not complacent, planning assumptions after the UK escaped lightly from scares over H5N1 bird flu in 1997 and 2003 and the first pandemic of the 21st century, H1N1 swine flu in 2009. In the UK, most people who caught H1N1 developed relatively mild illnesses.
The do-it-yourself health measures taken during seasonal flu outbreaks can reduce the spread of infection and treat mild to moderate symptoms, says the document. These include washing hands properly, staying at home, keeping warm, drinking plenty of fluids and using over-the-counter cold and flu medicines.
However, identifying the strain of virus could take time, with production of specific vaccines taking four to six months. If 50% of employees were absent from work for an average of 1.5 weeks, the report says, there might be a £28bn loss of gross domestic product. In a widespread and severe pandemic, 15-20% of staff could be absent on any given day. More could take time off to care for sick dependants or look after children if schools were closed.
Healthcare workers would get face masks and respirators for treating sick patients, but such items would not be issued to the public, who might not use them correctly, change them regularly or dispose of them properly.
Closing airports, ports and international rail terminals would only delay, not stop, the arrival of a pandemic, while causing problems for food, medical an other supplies. Thermal screening of pasengers is dismissed as a waste of time, money and staff. Restricting transport and mass events would also be avoided. The emphasis would be on people who felt ill to be responsible and stay at home.
Andrew Lansley, the health secretary said: "This strategy sets out a clear framework to help planners in the NHS and other services to make sure we respond effectively to a flu pandemic."
The UK received a pat on the back from the World Health Organisation, whose assistant director general, Keiji Fukuda said: "The UK remains among the leaders worldwide in preparing for a pandemic."