THE NHS 24 hotline received 45,000 calls from Scots in the four days over Christmas – almost double last year’s number and the highest since the winter of 2004.
Thousands more are expected over the New Year period as medics confirmed Australian flu has hit Scotland with some hospitals struggling to cope, operations cancelled and GPs swamped.
NHS call centres in Aberdeen, Cardonald, Clydebank and South Queensferry were bombarded with patients suffering flu symptoms, coughs, colds and stomach bugs.
They are preparing to take at least another 29,000 over Hogmanay and New Year.
Chiefs advised people to ensure they collect prescriptions in advance, and speak to pharmacies if they need help for minor illnesses as they prepare for a new wave of enquiries.
Bosses say they started preparing for the winter surge in early summer to ensure they have enough staff on hand to take calls.
Despite this, patients were warned over Christmas they may have to wait longer due to the sheer number of people phoning.
NHS 24 medical director Dr Laura Ryan said: “We have had exceptionally high call demand and I would thank our staff, along with many others across NHS Scotland services, who have worked very hard to support many thousands of people over the past few days.
“NHS 24 began its winter planning early in the summer and has worked closely with all of our partners to ensure we could deliver safe and effective care over this very busy time of year.”
Public health chiefs say the most common type of flu this season is H3N2 – the same as that which has been linked to more than 300 deaths, and 177,000 infections in Australia,
Hospitals are seeing steep rises in admissions for patients with flu and flu-like illnesses, with around 675 people being admitted to wards so far.
Of these, 19 people had to be taken into intensive care, and since December 10, three people have tragically died.
The British Medical Association’s GP committee chairman Alan McDevitt said: “We are concerned this year about flu because of the way it has affected Australia.
“A big outbreak is concerning as it can cause an excess number of fatalities, particularly among people who are more susceptible. We are keeping an eye on it just now, as we don’t’ know how bad it may be this year.”
One insider said Aberdeen Royal Infirmary had been overwhelmed with patients being admitted for flu.
In some cases, patients have to be accommodated in wards with other people as all the individual rooms have been taken.
Another hospital employee told The Sunday Post: “People with flu symptoms are being put in wards with others as there are difficulties finding individual rooms for everyone.
“It’s really not ideal, putting someone with flu on a ward with others who are already ill with something else.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen in years.”
According to the latest Health Protection Scotland report, in the last week the number of visits to the doctor for flu-like illness has exceeded the normal level for this time of year, while the number of flu outbreaks are higher now than they have been for three years.