Good news and bad news in the flu furore

The worst of the outbreak may be over, but there are still no plans for a comprehensive vaccination

The good news is that we appear to be over the worst of this year's flu outbreak.

The bad news (for worried parents like me) is that there is still no sign of the flu vaccine being made available to children and the under-fives in particular.

I aired my frustrations about being unable to vaccinate my 20-month-old daughter against this potentially fatal but utterly preventable disease on this blog earlier in the week – saying that I couldn't help feeling that it was all ultimately down to saving money.

On Thursday, I was given the opportunity to put these concerns directly to the NHS director of immunisation, Professor David Salisbury.

He spoke to me as the latest figures show seven confirmed deaths of children under five from flu since September, against 11 deaths in the five-to-14-year-old age range, 59 deaths among those aged 15-44, 78 deaths in those aged 45-64 and 55 deaths among the over-65s.

The cumulative total number of confirmed flu deaths since September currently stands at 254 – a sharp increase on last week's total of 112. But because of a two-week time lag in the death statistics filtering through, that sharp increase reflects the peak (fingers crossed) of the disease a few weeks ago, rather than the current picture.

I said to Professor Salisbury that it is all very well saying that children are at a comparitively low risk of dying from flu, but that this will provide little comfort for parents grieving the loss of those who have died from this preventable illness.

He said:

Supply of vaccine is driven by customers. If customers order the vaccine, industry then increases supply. It's not a capacity issue, it's an issue to do with what is the best use of the resources that we have available to us.

He said that the latest information was that those identified as being in the high-risk groups – who are being offered the vaccine on the NHS – are around 20 times more likely to die from influenza than others. So, he said, that is why the vaccine is being offered on a risk basis, rather than one based on age – as happened last year, when those aged under five were offered the jab.

Those in the high-risk groups include over-65s, pregnant women and those with certain underlying health conditions.

Recorded numbers of people with flu-like symptoms have dipped since last week and the number of people in NHS critical care beds with flu symptoms on 20 January dropped to 418, down from 661 a week ago. Some 20 in critical care with flu were under-fives.

For those worried parents (like me), whose children don't fall into an at-risk category, the only thing to do is hope that supplies return to private clinics – which have been offering the jab for between £10 and £25 a pop – or else keep pestering your GP.

Prof Salisbury said to me that NHS high command only makes recommendations, but that it is up to GPs to make their own clinical judgements.

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.