22 August 2001 22:06 GMT+1
The number of people contracting the flu will peak this week, according to the country's leading expert.
Dr Douglas Fleming, of the Birmingham research unit of the Royal College of General Practitioners - which collates the official flu figures - said the timing of the outbreak was to blame for the beds shortage in hospitals across the country.
The Prime Minister's Office said the Chief Medical Officer believed that the flu outbreak was reaching epidemic proportions. But Dr Fleming said that the flu had reached "crisis" not "epidemic" proportions.
He said: "This is the worst time of year for all respiratory infections. Having a flu outbreak of these proportions has meant many hospitals are running out of beds.
"This virus has selectively attacked older people, which has made the situation worse. Most flu outbreaks peak at four-to-five weeks. I would expect it to peak nationally this week."
Thousands of people have had surgery cancelled or postponed as hospitals have delayed the reintroduction of routine operations, which were suspended during the Christmas and New Year period. Many hospitals are carrying out only emergency operations, putting more pressure on waiting lists.
Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the NHS managers' association, the NHS Confederation, said: "NHS hospitals have been encouraged by successive governments to become more and more efficient. This means that the average bed occupancy has increased from 70 per cent or so in the Seventies to over 90 per cent today. This leaves little spare capacity for winter peaks."
The low proportion of people having the flu vaccination is also thought to be responsible for the crisis. "Young people at risk, for example those with asthma, are not taking up the vaccine," Dr Fleming said.
The latest figures, released by the Public Health Laboratory last week, show that only about 40 per cent of "high-risk" people - those over 65 - and 15 per cent of "vulnerable" people - aged under 65 with existing breathing or lung disorders - had taken the vaccine. The Government is intending to make vaccination compulsory for people over 75 next year.
The figures agreed by the Department of Health and virology experts state that a flu outbreak reaches epidemic levels in England and Wales when 400 people per 100,000 are suffering from the virus. In Scotland, this is 1,000 people per 100,000 because flu-like symptoms, as well as influenza, are reported.
In the North of England, official figures show that 171 people per 100,000 have flu. However local health staff believe that the numbers are much higher.
Funeral directors said there is a 10-day delay on both burials and cremations because of the high demand. Health officials said the number of emergency cases more than doubled at the weekend.
Wansbeck, North Tyneside and Hexham hospitals said there were double the usual number of admission for this time of year.
"It's critical but it's not a crisis," said Ross Forbes, the duty manager for the hospitals. "Mostly we are seeing old people coming in with flu infections and respiratory complaints which need intensive care."
Karen Lloyd, communications manager for the area's NHS Executive, said: "There are people suffering at home and we know a lot of people have been ringing the NHS Direct line about flu-related symptoms. But if they haven't seen a GP, they aren't counted."
Hospitals in the South-west are also buckling under the strain. All routine operations are cancelled at most hospitals.
"We are seeing a lot of flu-like illnesses, particularly amongst young children and people over 45," said Vicky O'Loughlin, of the Avon Health Authority.
The spread of the bug is being monitored by a team of Bristol-based researchers who are testing a new flu drug on 500 volunteers who contacted the centre within 36 hours of developing flu. Dr John Reid, who is leading the team, said: "There is a nasty virus going around which is mimicking the flu virus."
Hospitals across the South-east have made available extra beds to meet a sharp increase in admission rates. Most have cancelled elective surgery.
In Worthing, West Sussex, which has an elderly population, all 600 beds at the two local hospitals are taken. The normal admission rate of 30 patients per day has doubled.
In Maidstone, Kent, health chiefs warned that hospitals are at breaking point because many staff are ill.
In Wales, two deaths have already been attributed to the flu outbreak, which is putting a heavy strain on services.
Seventeen-year-old David Short, from Trebanos, near Swansea, went to bed with flu-like symptoms and was found dead a few hours later. Kieron Gregory, 33, died hours after complaining to doctors of a raging headache and fever.
Only one intensive care bed was free in Wales yesterday.