Flu could pose a bigger threat than Covid this winter as Britain risks being hit by one of its worst outbreaks for years, experts have warned.
Influenza was virtually non-existent last season as everything from a record vaccination uptake, coronavirus lockdowns, social distancing, face masks and improved hygiene habits helped to reduce transmission.
The number of flu sufferers plunged by more than 95 per cent to levels not seen for 130 years, but scientists fear waning immunity levels during the pandemic could lead to a severe resurgence of the contagious disease.
Experts fear a scenario where a more transmissible strain emerges and the vaccine isn’t as effective due to scientists’ struggle to predict this year’s dominant strains.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, warned that the NHS “faces a perfect storm of Covid-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses” in addition to a “growing backlog of care”.
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People infected with both the flu and Covid-19 are more than twice as likely to die compared with someone infected with coronavirus alone, a study by Public Health England (PHE) found.
The Department of Health has assured Brits it is preparing for flu season, and new Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said he expects record high uptake for jabs this year.
A Covid vaccine booster campaign is expected to begin this autumn to increase immunity for more than 32 million Brits, and those jabs could be given alongside flu shots, Mr Javid said.
Rates of flu could be much higher than normal this year as life shifts “back to normal” following the pandemic, said Cheryl Lythgoe, matron at Benenden Health.
She said: “As we don’t know how the situation will change over the next few months, it’s important to protect yourself and get vaccinated against flu.
“By getting the jab, you’re not just protecting yourself – you’re ensuring you don’t pass the virus onto families and vulnerable contacts.
“Seasonal flu kills between 10,000-30,000 people per year and puts many more in hospital, so our NHS services, which are absolutely stretched to their limits, will also benefit.”
Professor Martin Michaelis, an expert on molecular medicine at the University of Kent, said: “A large flu epidemic would put significant strain on the healthcare system and our hospitals.
“I would not be surprised if we had another rough and bumpy winter, and we should do everything we can to avoid large flu and large Covid-19 outbreaks.”
Typically, circulating flu strains are identified prior to the season and vaccines are then designed to protect against them, but that has been difficult this year due to the low number of cases last season.
Professor Michaelis said: “The accuracy of these predictions varies and sometimes the vaccines do not match the influenza virus strains that are causing the seasonal influenza outbreak as much as we would have hoped.
“This can mean that the efficacy of the vaccines is limited.
“After a year with hardly any flu cases it will be particularly difficult to predict which influenza viruses will cause the next flu epidemic.
“Thus, influenza vaccines may not provide the best protection, because unexpected influenza virus strains may be circulating during the flu season.”
He added: “Even if a vaccine does not match the circulating influenza virus strains that well there will still be some level of protection.”
What are the symptoms of flu?
Flu often gets better on its own, but some people can become seriously ill.
Symptoms come on very quickly and can include:
- Sudden high temperature of 38C or above
- Body aches
- Feeling tired or exhausted
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhoea or tummy pain
- Feeling sick and being sick
Children develop similar symptoms, but they can also get pain in their ear and appear less active.
Flu sufferers should get rest and sleep, keep warn, take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower their temperature and treat aches and pains, and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
Professor Michaelis said everyone should get a flu jab and continue to follow health habits they developed during the pandemic, such as frequent hand washing, to avoid catching or spreading flu.
He added: “There are many things that we can actually maintain and that do not mean massive constraints to our daily life.
“We can wash our hands more often, in particular when we have touched surfaces that have been touched by many.
“We can be more selective with shaking hands and hugging.
“Face masks are an option in situations of high infection risk, in particular in stuffy, poorly ventilated closed environments.
“In particular, it would be helpful if everyone, who experiences disease symptoms, wore a mask or ideally stayed at home.
“Going to work or school when you are already ill should really become a thing of the past.
“Basically, everything that we learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic will also protect us from the flu and other respiratory diseases.”
Hussain Abdeh, clinical director and superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, said measures aimed at halting the spread of Covid proved “highly effective” for eliminating flu.
He said: “If we are to take anything away from the pandemic, it should be how effective face masks and sanitising can be in preventing the spread of any virus, not just Covid.
“It is my personal belief that the UK public will continue to use face masks more frequently, particularly during cold and flu season.
“I also believe that individuals coming forward for the flu jab will increase massively, particularly as we have witnessed first hand the benefits of a vaccination program and how it offers a level of immunity to a virus.”
Mr Javid recently confirmed the Government is considering whether to give a booster vaccine for coronavirus along with the flu jab over the winter.
If that happens, uptake of the flu vaccine “should be at record highs”, he predicted.
He told MPs on July 5: “Because of the measures in place this winter, almost nobody in the UK had flu for 18 months now, that’s obviously a good thing but it does mean that immunity from flu is down.
“This winter’s flu campaign will be more important than ever and we’re currently looking at whether we can give people the Covid-19 booster shot and the flu jab at the same time.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The government is getting ready for the next influenza season to ensure the health service can provide as many flu vaccines to people as possible – providing wide protection from the flu.
“Further details of the winter vaccination programme will be set out in due course.”