As many as 60,000 people could die from flu this winter, scientists have said, as they warned that a combination of seasonal viruses and Covid-19 could mean that the NHS is “unable to cope” this winter.
Experts said that if left unchecked, the flu season could be particularly deadly this year but a series of measures could help mitigate the risks, including enhancing the flu jab programme and using rapid tests for flu.
The new report, from the Academy of Medical Sciences, warned that a mix of Covid-19, influenza (flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), could put severe strain on health services.
It comes after Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said flu could “come back to bite us” this year. In June, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that flu could be “potentially a bigger problem” than Covid this winter.
“We’ve had a very, very low prevalence of flu for the last few years, particularly virtually nil during lockdown, and we do know that when flu has been circulating in very low numbers immunity drops in the population, and it comes back to bite us,” he said. “So flu can be really, really important this winter.”
His thoughts were echoed by Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and member of the government’s SPI-M modelling group, who told BBC Radio 4 he thinks flu is “likely to be a significant issue coming into the autumn and winter”.
“We can counter that with seasonal flu shots which will be rolled out in the autumn, but I think we do need to be prepared for potentially quite a significant flu epidemic – probably late this year, early next year,” he said.
Flu cases were massively down last season, according to data from the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), which found community prevalence was around 95% lower than normal. This pattern was witnessed globally, too.
It’s thought all of the social distancing measures for Covid helped to suppress the spread of the virus. Flu vaccine uptake in England was also up last year.
Professor Martin Marshall, RCGP chair, said in February 2021 that the drop in cases “made sense” when you considered the lockdown restrictions, social distancing measures, and increased focus on maintaining good hygiene practices to curb Covid.
At the time, Professor Paul Hunter, from the Norwich School of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, warned future flu seasons may come back stronger after the pandemic. “Given that population immunity to influenza will have declined more than normal as we miss at least one and possibly two influenza seasons before we’re back to normal, it’s highly likely that we’ll see a more severe influenza peak than we would otherwise have expected,” he said.
The flu vaccine will be important protecting people this winter, as flu and Covid circulate in tandem. A study funded by PHE found people infected with flu and Covid-19 at the same time are almost twice as likely to die as those with Covid-19 alone.
Research is underway to see whether flu vaccines can be given alongside Covid booster vaccines later this year.
Earlier in 2021, the advice surrounding having the flu jab and Covid jab was that doses should be given at least seven days apart. This is because if you had both the vaccines in the space of a few days of each other – or at the same time – and then had an allergic reaction, it would be hard for doctors to tell which vaccine had caused the adverse effects.
“Because of the absence of data on co-administration with Covid-19 vaccines, it should not be routine to offer appointments to give this vaccine at the same time as other vaccines,” a PHE spokesperson told HuffPost UK at the time.