The UK’s Department of Health has announced plans to double its stockpile of antiviral drugs ahead of a potential flu pandemic in order to cover at least half of the population.

The move was announced by Health Secretary Alan Johnson who set out “a new clinical countermeasures strategy” to deal with a “worst-case scenario”. He said that the threat of “an influenza pandemic remains real” and although present stockpiles would cover around 25% of the population, it has been deemed necessary to raise that figure to 50%. There are about 60 million people in the UK and estimates suggest that 2.5% of the 25%-50% of those infected could die.

In August, the DoH awarded contracts to GlaxoSmithKline and Baxter International, worth £155.4 million pounds over four years, which would see the two firms supply a vaccine as soon as the strain is identified and made available by the World Health Organisation. The government is also buying 14.7 million courses of antibiotics, 34 million respirators and 350 million face masks.

The announcement is also good news for Roche which noted that after talks with the government, it is on stand-by to upscale production to supply Tamiflu (oseltamivir) as an additional order “to help protect the UK public against the massive impact of an influenza pandemic”. However, no order has yet been placed so Mr Johnson said that no exact cost for the additional supplies could be given. The DoH is also considering putting in an order for GSK’s Relenza (zanamivir).

The UK’s chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson said that “we may not be able to prevent a pandemic, but with good planning we can reduce its impact on all aspects of society”. He added that this new framework will enable organisations such as schools, businesses, transport “and the NHS to prepare for a pandemic in an integrated manner, with the full support of cross-government policy and planning”.

Sir Liam concluded by saying that that “developing habits for respiratory hygiene - using tissues, disposing of them carefully, and cleaning hands - are all good practice even before a pandemic arrives”.