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NHS launches winter contingency plan

GPs encouraged to get flu jab and be alert for at-risk patients

Mark Gould

Thursday, 01 November 2012

NHS winter contingency plans ask GPs and other primary care staff to ensure that flu vaccination targets are hit and that they do their utmost to ensure the health system works during any prolonged period of severe weather or widespread illness.

The Cold Weather Plan calls on general practice, public health and local authorities to identify patients most at risk of death, ill health or accident during a prolonged spell of bad weather to be identified and for pro-active measures to be taken to ensure they are warm and safe.

The Department of Health says that last winter there were 23,700 more deaths in England between December 2010 and March 2011 than were observed over the rest of the year.

This number of so-called ‘excess winter deaths’ was virtually unchanged from the previous winter. In the recent past, the rate in England was known to be twice the rate observed in some northern European countries, such as Finland.

It says that winter weather and snow are associated with an increase in illnesses and injuries. Cold weather increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, lung illnesses, flu and other diseases. People slip and fall in the snow or ice, suffering serious injuries.

The Cold Weather Plan and existing winter planning looks at national and local planning and preparedness and also how the public themselves and more vulnerable people can protect themselves.

This winter aspects of the Met Office Cold Weather Alerts service have been revised to improve targeting and the frequency of alerts.

Hospitals, emergency departments, GP surgeries and other community health and care providers are reminded to identify high risk patients and clients and ensure that living rooms and bedrooms are kept warm, that patients and residents wear warm clothing that is appropriate to the temperature and weather conditions, indoor and outdoor.

The public is asked to check on older neighbours or relatives to make sure they are safe, warm and well. They are also advised to layer clothing and wear shoes with a good grip if they need to go outside.

As well as basic advice on food and drink it also stressed the importance of financial support such as grants, benefits and sources of advice available to make homes more energy efficient, improve heating or help with bills.

All NHS providers should have business continuity plans that cover bad weather that include bringing in more medical, nursing and allied staff to deal with expected surges in demand.

While the document concedes that there is no national advertising campaign this year, it suggests Strategic Health Authorities may wish to support NHS organisations in finding opportunities to promote the immunisation programme to increase uptake in their areas. Although all relevant staff are encouraged to have the flu jab, just 45% took up the offer last winter.

Hospitals should consider discharging inpatients, taking account of transport networks, to free up acute beds, and work with local authorities and other partners to make step-down and re-ablement services available. Cancelling routine elective surgery and day-case outpatient surgery may also be necessary to accommodate increased cold-related demand.

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