Happy flu year! 'Don't call us, we can't cope' GPs warn as out-of-hours calls soar by 60%
By Beth Hale
and Claire Ellicott
Last updated at 1:30 AM on 01st January 2009
Sneezy: Flu is causing headaches for GPs across the country as out-of-hours calls to surgeries rise by an average of 25 per cent
Doctors have issued an urgent New Year plea to flu sufferers - stay at home.
They said flu patients were swamping a health service already under pressure from the winter vomiting bug and the effects of the coldest festive season for decades.
Calls to GPs outside surgery hours have soared by 60 per cent in some places.
Walk-in centres and hospital accident and emergency departments have been flooded with patients who cannot reach a GP.
But doctors said most flu sufferers do not need professional treatment.
Dr Mark Reynolds, a GP and medical director of South East Health, which treats more than 2.2million patients, said phone lines had been 'red hot', with calls 'every few seconds'.
He said: ' People who are usually fit and healthy are coming down with the flu virus and feeling very ill indeed.
'There's little we can do for them, we are much more concerned about the elderly and very young getting ill.
'Other people should stock up on ibuprofen and paracetamol and other over-the-counter treatments.'
As the nation braved an icy start to 2009, the picture of the NHS under pressure emerged from a survey by the NHS Alliance, which represents GPs and managers working outside hospitals.
It found that in just three days in the build-up to Christmas calls to out-of-hours services rose by an average of 25 per cent.
On a single Saturday in the West Midlands demand was 60 per cent up on the previous month and more than a quarter higher than expected.
Separate figures reveal that the Birmingham and Solihull area - which covers 1.5million people - was hit by its highest-ever demand over Christmas, handling 6,500 calls.
This year's flu outbreak, blamed on an Australian strain of the virus called Brisbane H3N2, is on course to be the worst since 1999, when 22,000 people died.
Official figures show a drop in the number of reported cases last week but doctors say they are having to deal with many people who actually have colds but believe they have flu.
Dr Mark Dixon, a GP and chairman of the NHS Alliance, said: 'We have had very mild weather followed by a cold snap and that change in temperature can lead to more people getting ill.
'We are coping well with the increased demand but we do see an awful lot of people who are calling a cold flu. I know my patients well, so I can usually tell which ones are really ill, but we do get a lot of people who don't necessarily need to see their GP.'
Rick Stern, primary care lead for the NHS Alliance, said: 'The ambulance services are under pressure, but we should not forget that those working in primary care are also having to cope with significant demand'.
The Daily Mail has already reported how volunteers from the Red Cross and St John ambulance are being sent to 999 calls as the ambulance service is hit by a deluge of emergencies.
A combination of illness and a wave of alcohol-related injuries from the Christmas party season forced them to turn to charities for help.
Accident and emergency departments are also feeling the strain.
Doctors at Gloucestershire Royal and Cheltenham General hospitals reported 30 per cent more arrivals than last year.
Dr Phillip Fielding, a GP and member of the local medical committee, said: 'We get a run of viruses each year but this year we have been knocked for six.'