Contracts for swine flu vaccines should have included ‘get out’ clauses, a Government-commissioned review has found.
The swine flu pandemic cost Northern Ireland £41.8 million and Britain more than £1.2bn despite being much less severe than feared.
Warnings that 65,000 people in the UK could die as a result of the H1N1 virus proved wrong — the actual death toll during the outbreak was 457, with only 18 of these deaths occurring in Northern Ireland.
However, an inquiry into the handling of the emergency concluded that the Government's response was “proportionate and effective”, but it did criticise the restrictive contracts with drug companies which have left a stockpile of millions of unused swine flu vaccines.
Dame Deirdre Hine, a former chief medical officer for Wales who led the review, defended the cost of the fight against swine flu.
“I think we have got to set these figures, which seem enormous, against the potential for saving lives,” she told reporters at a briefing in London.
“It is fairly clear, although we can't actually identify the number, that there probably were lives saved of very young people, young children and so on. These are extremely valuable lives.”
Dame Deirdre's review team said commercial confidentiality prevented them from revealing how much money would have been saved if the Government's vaccine contracts had included break clauses.
But their report said: “Break clauses would allow the UK to retain the option to cancel further deliveries of vaccine at a particular point if it emerged that more vaccine was no longer needed. The lack of such a clause in the advance purchase agreements for both contracts consequently exposed the Exchequer to some risk.”
Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said: “I welcome the independent review which has found that our preparations were soundly based in terms of value for money, and reflect the low cost of vaccination in relation to the value of lives saved.
“We have to remember that, whilst this pandemic was not as virulent as we first feared, for many it caused serious illness and we should not forget those that lost their lives.
“It is encouraging that the report commends the approach taken by the four health ministers to the swine flu threat. It notes that the co-ordinated response was effective and allowed the UK to move together at key points of the response.”
He added: “I would like to thank Dame Deirdre for undertaking the review and for finalising her report so promptly. We will now consider the recommendations contained within the report and build these into our future pandemic planning.
“Finally, I wish to echo Dame Deidre’s sentiments and pay tribute to those in our Health Service and public health staff who led the response to this pandemic and protected our public.”
From outbreak to investigation... the swine flu year
April 24: The Health Protection Agency says it is monitoring a deadly swine flu outbreak in Mexico and the United States after more than 60 people worldwide die after contracting the virus.
April 26: Iain and Dawn Askham, of Polmont, near Falkirk, are confirmed as the first UK cases of swine flu after returning from their honeymoon in Mexico.e July 10: A hospital patient from Essex becomes the first person without underlying health problems to die after contracting swine flu, NHS East of England says.
July 23: A website to diagnose people with swine flu receives 2,600 hits per second and crashes within minutes of launching.e November 26: It is revealed that more than a million people at high risk have been vaccinated in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
December 9: Research published in the British Medical Journal questions the effectiveness of the antiviral Tamiflu, saying it could cut the length of time people have symptoms by about a day but there was no clear evidence that it prevented complications like pneumonia.
December 10: Sir Liam Donaldson says the pandemic is “considerably less lethal” than feared, with 26 deaths for every 100,000 cases in England.
January 8: The number of new cases in the UK falls significantly, to fewer than 5,000 new cases in a week, but the death toll rises to 360.
January 13: The Government abandons its weekly swine flu briefings in another sign that the crisis has eased.
April 9: The NHS Information Centre says the number of days people spent in hospital beds with flu in 2009 was up 700% on 2008 to 33,376.</>
What is swine flu and how is it spread?
Swine flu, as the name suggests, is a type of flu. It is called swine flu because it is thought to have originated in pigs, but this is not certain.
Flu viruses change constantly — what makes new strains potentially so dangerous is that people have not been exposed to them and had a chance to build up natural immunity to them.
Swine flu — a strain of the influenza type A virus known as H1N1 — was first diagnosed in humans in Mexico in April last year.
Swine flu is transmitted in the same way as other types of flu, through coughing, sneezing and touching any contaminated surfaces.
What are the symptoms and how dangerous is it?
The symptoms of swine flu in people are similar to the symptoms of normal winter flu and include fever, fatigue, lack of appetite, coughing and sore throat. Some people with swine flu have also reported vomiting and diarrhoea. Like winter flu, it can be fatal. Thousands of people were made ill by swine flu and in some cases, particularly in Mexico, it proved fatal.
But compared with other flu pandemics these figures are very small — the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed more than 50 million people, the Asian flu pandemic of 1957 two million people, and the Hong Kong outbreak in 1968 up to one million people globally.