090b32d4bb868210VgnVCM200000e66411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q3Swine flu panic reaches fever pitch across Britaina80b32d4bb868210VgnVCM200000e66411ac____Swine flu panic reaches fever pitch across BritainAt the open-air opera in Holland Park, West London. The tenor has been struck down with a sore throat and bad chest.<p>LONDON // At the open-air opera in Holland Park, West London. The tenor has been struck down with a sore throat and bad chest. Swine flu, mutters the woman next to me and tucks her nose into her pashmina.
It is not just swine flu, or H1N1, that is sweeping the UK but rumours, apprehension and conflicting advice - and that is from the medical profession and the politicians.
It reached a fever pitch on Thursday with the opening of the National Flu Pandemic Service. Within minutes the website crashed under the weight of 2,600 hits a second and the phonelines buzzed with 10,000 calls in the first hour. Some callers were sick, others stocking up with the antiviral drug Tamiflu for the holidays, others were the "worried well".</p>
<p>It is a fact that the UK has the fastest growth of the flu in the world with the number of cases doubling in a week to 100,000. There are 840 people in hospital and 30 deaths since the outbreak in Mexico in April but the trouble is the public do not really know what to make of it all. The only safeguard that all authorities agree on is: wash your hands.
That is it. Oh, and bin your handkerchief after sneezing.</p>
<p>Apart from that, well, it is anyone's guess. Most people just carry on, ignoring the occasional neurotic person hiding behind a mask like an extra from a Michael Jackson tribute band.
Of course, people are worried. The health secretary, Andy Burnham, warned the country to expect 100,000 cases a day by the end of August and the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, forecast as many as 65,000 deaths this winter. That is about the same as the Great Plague of 1665, though mercifully short of the 75 million claimed worldwide by the Black Death between 1347 and 1353.</p>
<p>No doubt the soothsayers of the Middle Ages rummaged deep in the entrails of chickens to find the answers. Today there is something of the headless chicken about the experts.
Pregnant mothers have been reduced to nervous wrecks. Do not conceive, said the National Childbirth Trust. Do conceive but do not go on the crowded Underground, recommended the Royal College of Obstetricians; do go on the Underground, said Sir Liam, but only until the autumn.</p>
<p>Parents are puzzled. In the Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal two government advisers suggested that, with the five to 14-year-old-age group identified as the most vulnerable, long-term closure of schools could reduce cases by 38-45 per cent and Sir Liam advised the government that 50,000 deaths could be prevented. The government's position: wait and see.
"We will be monitoring the situation closely over the school holidays," said the schools secretary Ed Balls. "We will review the evidence in late August."</p>
<p>What about football fans? Mr Burnham argued it would be safe to go to matches despite the crowds but then refused to say whether he would take his children to a match, thus failing the Great Gummer Beefburger test. This dates back to the BSE beef crisis of the 1980s, better known as mad cow disease, when then agriculture minister John Gummer forced his four-year-old daughter to eat a burger to prove its healthiness.</p>
<p>So some of the country panics, terrified by every tickly cough and every aching limb, but most keep going with a mix of stoic amusement and scepticism which is reinforced by the kind of random stories that circulate such as the Bishop of Blackburn's decision to stop the diocese's 230 churches from administering communion wine while Catholics have been allowed to dip their wafer in communion wine instead of drinking, a 400-year-old practice introduced in the 1547 Sacrament Act during an outbreak of bubonic plague. One newspaper whipped up a splendid bout of Francophobia by reporting how a French swine flu squad "swooped" on terrified English children suspected of being ill on a school trip in Normandy and forced them to wear masks and shoes before kicking them out.</p>
<p>While we are washing our hands and looking for a bin it is worth taking statistical stock. The population of the world is 6.7bn. The global swine flu death toll is 700. Of course, it does not diminish the tragedy or deny the existence of an epidemic but while we are talking perspectives it is worth bearing in mind that asthma attacks in the UK result in around 1,200 deaths a year and according to a publication from the chief medical officer in 2005, "ordinary flu" affects 10-15 per cent of the UK population every year, causing around 12,000 deaths.</p>
<p>Still, for all those suffering from the symptoms of flu - that is headaches, muscle pain, coughs, sore throats, chills and fever, not to mention vomiting and diarrhoea - there is now the hotline.
It is manned by people with no medical training - some of whom usually work for Sainsbury's supermarket - who go through a checklist provided by the National Health Service.
Oh, dear. We're obviously doomed. Maybe the woman who phoned in to Radio Four had as good a solution as any: swine flu sounds so unpleasant, she said, if it had a nice, friendly name like Fluffy Bunny Flu we wouldn't be half as alarmed.</p>
<p>* The National</p>
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