Ministers ‘wasted millions … for epidemic that never arrived’

Sophie Borland – Daily Mail July 2, 2010

More than £1.2billion of taxpayers’ money was spent on the swine flu pandemic that never materialised, a report has found.

The Government was forced to squander vast sums on vaccines based on dire predictions that never came true.

But ministers were committed to the spending because drugs giants refused to back out of their contracts.

The official review into the Government’s response to swine flu said that, overall, it was ‘proportionate and effective’.

But the review noted that there was a lack of ‘flexibility’ in the contracts signed by drugs firms which left the Health Service with millions of needless doses of the vaccine.

Even when it became clear that the threat posed by the outbreak had been overestimated, GlaxoSmithKline, one of two firms manufacturing the jab, would not renegotiate the terms.

One critic described ministers’ reaction to the so-called pandemic as a ‘hugely expensive farce’.

Details of the scale of the cost emerge as the NHS is being forced to make drastic cuts, with hundreds of doctors and nurses’ posts at risk.

Yesterday’s review into the swine flu response, chaired by Dame Deirdre Hine, a former chief medical officer for Wales, revealed that the Government was locked in a contract with GSK.

This meant that millions of doses of vaccines were being produced that were never going to be needed.

Although ministers were able to renegotiate their contract with Baxter, the other drug firm making the jab, GSK refused to sign a break-clause.

The report said lessons needed to be learned for the future.

At the height of the panic last year, ministers feared there could be as many as 65,000 deaths and ordered 90million doses of the vaccine at a cost of £540million.

In fact yesterday’s report revealed that just 457 people died from swine flu – about a third of those killed every year by ordinary seasonal flu.

Many of those victims had underlying health conditions.

As a result, just 5.1million doses of the vaccine were used, leaving the Department of Health with as many as 20million doses which will be out of date by October next year.

Some of the vaccines will be donated to the Third World.

The report showed £1.24billion was spent preparing for the pandemic.

It did not say how much of this money could have been saved had GSK renegotiated the terms of the contract – but last year the firm made revenues of £883million from sales of the vaccine alone.

Critics said officials had squandered vast sums of money by overreacting to ‘scaremongering’.

Labour MP Paul Flynn, who investigated the handling of the outbreak for the Council of Europe, said: ‘The effects of swine flu were wildly exaggerated.

‘Scaremongering on this sort of scale must never happen again.’

He also said the report had ‘evaded the issue’ adding: ‘It does not go into the huge disruption to the Health Service and the impact on patients.’

Mark Wallace, campaign director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, labelled the situation ‘a hugely expensive farce’.

The NHS is under pressure to make £20billion of savings by 2014.

A report by the British Medical Association this week revealed that some hospitals are already axing up to 500 staff over the next year.

And last month it emerged that one in six primary care trusts has been forced to slash services after each spent an average of £340,000 preparing for swine flu.

But Dame Deirdre said the cost of the pandemic was ‘proportionate and effective’.

‘We have got to set these figures against the potential for saving lives,’ she added.

‘It is a bit like childbirth – when it’s all over, you forget how serious and difficult it was.