Daniel Martin and Alison Smith Squire
11th January 2010
Temporary workers in swine flu call centres are diagnosing patients while high on cannabis or drunk on vodka, a whistleblower has claimed.
The former worker, who said she was forced to leave the ‘shambolic environment’ at one of the centres, said patients were being put at risk because staff did not receive enough training.
Ashleigh Venus said she was shocked that Â£6-an-hour staff with no medical knowledge were being trusted to hand out the anti-viral drug Tamiflu after asking a prepared script of questions, even though there are no doctors on site to give advice.
The revelation of poor standards in swine flu call centres adds to growing concerns that millions have been wasted tackling what turned out to be a mild disease.
Some 132million doses of vaccine were ordered when ministers believed the virus could kill as many as 65,000. They now admit the toll will be less than 1,000 – and might have to give the vaccine away at a possible cost of Â£1billion.
Health officials now say that as few as one in five of those given Tamiflu after ringing the swine flu hotline actually had the disease. More than one million packs have been handed out, raising the fear that the virus could have needlessly developed resistance to Tamiflu.
The Mail can reveal the truth about the call centres after speaking to 18-year-old Miss Venus, who started work at one in the north of England after three hours’ training.
She said many staff – some as young as 16 – did not take the job seriously. Callers were routinely mocked, and she was forced to deal with staff shouting and throwing paper aeroplanes around.
Supervision was so lax that staff ate pizzas and played board games while speaking to worried patients on the phone.
Miss Venus said: ‘I was very concerned that patients were ringing, often in great distress, but were not getting a proper diagnosis.
‘Some staff brought in vodka disguised as water to drink as they answered calls. And a few smoked cannabis during their breaks.’
She added: ‘The Government should be ashamed of this service. I know I was ashamed to work there.’
Critics say patients with deadly meningitis could be at risk because the symptoms can sound similar to those of flu.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: ‘These revelations about the culture that exists in call centres are simply shocking.
‘They add to concerns that the whole battle against swine flu has been a botched job. In the race to appear on the front foot compared with other countries, we ended up with a system that was flawed in its implementation – and dangerous as a result.
‘It demands a thorough and robust review of the whole experience of dealing with this pandemic so lessons are learned.
‘The critical thing is to avoid enormous sums of money being wasted in the future without achieving very much. It is inevitable that we will have another pandemic, and next time it could be far worse.’
The centre where Miss Venus worked was one of 19 set up by Health Secretary Andy Burnham in July at the height of the outbreak.
Since then, the number of call centres is understood to have fallen. But the Department of Health would not say how many there still are, nor how many staff are employed.
In the summer, the department faced embarrassment after it emerged that many call centre staff were GCSE students who were working late into the night in contravention of employment guidelines for under-18s.
Last night a spokesman said: ‘Experienced call operators are trained for a minimum of three hours. Less experienced call operators receive a day’s training.
‘All call centre agents are trained by NHS Direct personnel. Clinical on-call support will be available to the call centres.
‘If people are not receiving this training or facilities are not up to the required standard it is a breach of contract and action can be taken.
‘Strict industry standard regulations are in place when employing staff, including satisfactory employment and character references.’