Declassified documents show officials drew up plan to deal with predicted arrival of flu from far east
Last modified on Wed 29 Dec 2021 05.03 EST
Health chiefs believed a pandemic was “imminent” in 1997 and drew up a contingency plan that included a mass vaccination programme and closing borders.
Officials expected a flu pandemic to emerge from the far east and established a UK-wide plan to deal with the health crisis, newly declassified documents have revealed.
The Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety received the Contingency Plan for Pandemic Influenza in March 1997, which also included provisions to close schools.
The plan reads: “The following conditions coexisting suggest that a pandemic is imminent – the emergence of a new strain of influenza virus which has a marked antigenic shift – a new virus; a high proportion of susceptible people in the population, ie with no immunity to the new virus either from vaccination or from previous infection with a similar virus; evidence that the new virus can spread and cause human disease.”
The document continues: “Typically, new shifted strains of influenza virus have emerged in the far east and spread via Asia or the antipodes towards Europe.
“If this occurs, some warning is likely before a new strain appears in the United Kingdom, although spread may be very rapid.”
It predicted that any flu originating in China would probably have a faster spread than the previous pandemic in 1968 owing to “the opening of China to trade and tourism” and “increasing international movement of people and greater use of rapid methods of transportation”.
In response, the then senior medical officer for Northern Ireland, Dr Elizabeth Mitchell, drafted a contingency plan for the region in December 1997 to help the local health service to prepare draft arrangements.
The plan says: “Immunisation with appropriately formulated influenza vaccine can reduce the impact of influenza, particularly among those population groups most at risk of serious illness or death.
“An early priority of contingency arrangements will therefore be necessary to secure supplies of vaccine against the new strain and to immunise as many people as possible.”
The draft report adds: “In general, it is unlikely that the spread of influenza can be halted, but some slowing could possibly be achieved by reducing unnecessary, especially long-distance travel, and by encouraging people suffering from the disease to stay at home.
“Closing schools is likely to cause some problems, especially for working parents, but would be an option to be considered, particularly if teacher absenteeism reached levels at which schools could not function.”
Mitchell’s report also states that non-urgent hospital admissions, including serious but non-critical operations, would “need to be reviewed and may need to be suspended to make beds available”.
A letter from Northern Ireland’s then chief medical officer, Dr Henrietta Campbell, on 17 December 1997 to public health directors and doctors in Northern Ireland raised concerns over an outbreak of avian flu in Hong Kong, which had infected six people.
The declassified documents were made available to the public by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and can be viewed at the National Archives.