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Swine flu hotline run by 16-year-olds: NHS pays GCSE pupils to give advice and hand out drugs

An NHS call centre is employing 16-year-olds to assess suspected cases of swine flu.

They earn up to 16.40 an hour reading out a prepared script of questions.

It is their responsibility to hand out powerful anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu - known to have violent side-effects.

The revelation comes amid concerns that problems with the phone hotline are leading to incorrect diagnoses.

At least eight pupils from the same school are among 15 youngsters employed at the pandemic hotline call centre in Watford.

Many have been working late into the night, in contravention of employment law guidelines for under-18s.

A source said last night: 'Some of the kids are just so young I would be surprised if they could even spell the word pandemic.'

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Sandra Gidley called the news worrying.

'Expecting people with little or no experience to work on such a complex subject is irresponsible,' she said.

'It's bad enough that people can answer three questions and bingo, you get Tamiflu. The danger is that the Government, far far from being prepared as it claimed, is actually rushing things through in a way that is bad for the public.'

The call centre held a weekend of job interviews to find 800 part-time staff to supplement 200 existing full-time workers.

Some 5,000 people queued outside the headquarters of NHS Professionals, lured by 10 an hour on weekdays and 16.40 at weekends.

It is one of 19 centres set up in July after Health Secretary Andy Burnham announced a National Pandemic Flu Service.

The centre opens at 8am and closes its lines at midnight. Staff generally work ten-hour shifts, the last of which runs until midnight.

Under UK employment law, with a handful of exceptions, no one between 16 and 18 should work between 10pm and 6am. They should work no more than eight hours a day or 40 a week.

The new staff were given three hours of training in how to read a prepared script of questions to discover whether a caller - or a member of their family - was exhibiting swine flu symptoms.

If the caller answers yes to a certain number of questions, the call centre worker can suggest taking Tamiflu.

Callers are given an authorisation number which they hand to a 'flu friend' who can pick up the anti-viral from a collection point.

But an insider claimed that operators were advising higher numbers of people to get Tamiflu 'so they could show they were working hard'.

The source added: 'Not only is the Department of Health employing young kids awaiting their GCSE results - they also hire people who simply cannot make themselves understood to the public.

'Many have accents which are difficult to understand and some have difficulty in reading from the prepared script.'

NHS Professionals is a not-for-profit company which supplies temporary workers to the NHS. It employs around 46,000 staff.

The revelation that GCSE students are diagnosing flu comes just days after nine out of ten family doctors said they feared phone diagnosis would lead to serious diseases being missed.

NHS Professionals refused to discuss the hiring of schoolchildren and referred questions to the Department of Health.

Last night, the Department said: 'As soon as it was brought to the call centre's attention that a small number of call workers under 18 had worked past ten o clock, they took immediate action.

'The call centre is now using a workforce management application to ensure that no one under 18 works past 10pm.

'Call workers were recruited because they were the best candidates for the job.

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