A report released by the Academy of Medical Sciences in July predicted that COVID-19, the flu, and the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), could push the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to breaking point in the coming winter.
UK health chiefs have warned that there is a “realistic possibility” the country will have to grapple with a surge in flu cases this winter, reported Sky News.
“… We expect influenza to be much more common in the 21/22 winter”, Chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency Dr Jenny Harries was cited as saying.
National Health Service (NHS) deputy vaccination programme head, Dr. Nikki Kanani echoed the warning: “We do have an increased risk from flu and COVID this year.”
As extremely low flu infection rates were registered the previous winter, experts warn of a lack of immunity.
“Not many people got flu last year because of Covid-19 restrictions, so there isn’t as much natural immunity in our communities as usual. We will see flu circulate this winter; it might be higher than usual and that makes it a significant public health concern,” England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam was cited as saying.
Furthermore, this winter is facing a triple threat of flu (influenza), COVID-19 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
All this is compounded by the fact that social distancing measures, earlier in place amid the pandemic, have been removed in the country, resulting in increased mixing and travel borders opening up.
According to Jonathan Van-Tam, the winter of 1989/90, when around 19,000 excess flu deaths were registered, can be considered a “marker”.
This year, experts from the Academy of Medical Sciences predict deaths and hospitalisations from flu could double.
A report commissioned earlier in summer from the Academy concluded that the National Health Service (NHS) could be pushed to near breaking point amid the extra winter health challenges.
The report, “COVID-19: Preparing for the future, looking ahead to winter 2021/22 and beyond”, found that hospital admissions and deaths from flu and RSV could be more than double those seen in a normal year. Modelling for the report showed that this could result in an estimated 60,000 flu deaths and 40,000 children in hospital with RSV.
Experts emphasized that as a possible surge in flu cases would coincide with an increase of COVID-19 infections, the NHS would be faced with a backlog of routine care, while also operating with a reduced number of beds due to infection control measures.
The report warned of a staff shortage of nearly 84,000 experienced by the NHS.
Furthermore, flu, RSV and other respiratory viruses share the same symptoms as COVID-19, so the importance of tests to distinguish between was underscored. The health experts called for measures to ensure those eligible for a flu vaccination get the shots.
Massive Flu Jab Rollout
In response to concerns about the triple health threat, the UK government has launched the biggest flu jab programme in the history of the NHS. Over 35 million people in England are eligible for a free vaccine, including secondary school pupils up to year 11.
The NHS hopes to administer the flu jab to at least 85 percent of people aged 65 and over. At least 75 percent of people with underlying health conditions, 75 percent of pregnant women, 70 percent of eligible children and at least 85 percent of all health and social care workers are also to be targeted.
“This year we are rolling out the largest flu vaccine programme in our history, alongside the new Covid-19 booster vaccine rollout; both are important to provide vital protection not only to yourself, but also your loved ones while also helping to ease pressure on the NHS,” said Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid.
A new campaign film is out, urging people to book jab appointments. People are urged to get flu inoculations as well as COVID-19 booster vaccines. Around 1.7 million people have received the third coronavirus jab so far, with another 28 million people in England eligible.
While an average of 11,000 people die from flu in England, a recent survey commissioned by the Cabinet Office revealed that over half of the 3,000 respondents (55%) believe the number is lower than that.
Nearly one in three of those surveyed did not know that flu and COVID-19 could circulate simultaneously. Over a quarter of those polled were unaware that flu can be fatal.