Healthcare professionals are working around the clock to ensure people are vaccinated against the flu this year - particularly as cases of Australian flu are on the rise.
Some people have received text messages from their local practices inviting them to have the jab for free, while others have been invited to walk-in flu clinics on weekends to cope with increased demand.
The NHS confirmed staff have been actively encouraging people to take up the vaccine since September, however on a local scale it appears GPs are ramping things up a notch.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, told HuffPost UK: “The entire NHS is currently facing intense winter pressures and NHS staff in all areas of the service are working incredibly hard to deliver the best care possible for their patients.
“GP practices across the country have been working hard to put measures in place to cope with the anticipated increase in influenza, as well as other conditions, such as respiratory conditions and norovirus this winter.
“These have included running additional surgeries, including in the evenings and at weekends, to release capacity to deliver more urgent care for patients.”
As of 11 January, Public Health England (PHE) revealed there had been 48 flu-related deaths so far this winter, including 24 deaths in the last week of 2017.
The health body is also relentlessly reminding people to take up the vaccination offer at the heart of flu season.
A spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “It is not too late to get vaccinated to prevent flu and we therefore urge all who are eligible, especially those in at-risk groups that include people aged 65 years or over, pregnant women, and those with certain chronic conditions, to take up the offer of the vaccine.”
Professor Stokes-Lampard added: “It is also important that children, who often come into contact with elderly members of their family, are protected against the illness, and, instead of an injection, receive their immunisation in the form of a nasal spray from their GP.”
Australian (or Aussie) flu is the name given to flu subtype influenza A (H3N2). It was witnessed predominantly in Australia this year, hence the name. This strain of flu has already caused some fatalities in Ireland and is now spreading across the rest of the UK.
A flu heat map produced by PHE and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows the prevalence of Aussie flu across the UK and suggests cases are rapidly rising.
However a spokesperson from the health body warned people to “treat the map with caution” as only 7,500 people are registered to voluntarily report whether they have had flu-like symptoms each week.
Dr Richard Pebody, Acting Head of Respiratory Diseases department at Public Health England, explained: “This means the number of participants at a local level will be small and figures should thus be interpreted with caution. It is just one of a range of indicators which PHE flu surveillance considers when looking at the position across the country each week.
“As we would expect at this time of year, flu levels have increased this week. Our data shows that more people are visiting GPs with flu symptoms and we are seeing more people admitted to hospitals with the flu.
“The vaccine is the best defence we have against the spread of flu and it isn’t too late to get vaccinated.”
Does the jab protect against Australian flu?
:: A/H1N1 – the strain of flu that caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009
:: A/H3N2 – a strain of flu that mainly affects the elderly and people with risk factors like a long term health condition. (Also known as Australian flu.)
:: Influenza B – a strain of flu that particularly affects children. In 2017/18 the vaccine will contain B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus.
There is also a vaccine - called a quadrivalent influenza vaccine - which is given to people in high risk groups, such as children, elderly people, those who are pregnant or who have asthma. This vaccine protects against the three strains listed above as well as a strain called B/Phuket.
Official advice for prevention is that people experiencing flu-like symptoms should carry tissues at all times and use them to catch coughs or sneezes. They should then dispose of the tissues in a bin and wash their hands regularly with soap and warm water.
It’s also important to frequently clean surfaces like computer keyboards, telephones and other regularly used objects.
PHE advises to avoid having unnecessary contact with other people if you or they have symptoms of flu.
If you’re concerned about flu-like symptoms, you should stay at home and contact their GP, or call NHS 111, to seek further advice.
For most healthy people, recovering from flu can take roughly a week. However, for those that are more vulnerable, it can be more severe and it is important to be aware of this and seek help when needed.
Dr Steve Iley, medical director for Bupa UK, advised: “You should see a GP if your symptoms last for more than seven days, or if you’re in one of the high risk groups discussed earlier.
“If you experience sudden chest pains, difficulty breathing or coughing up blood, you should call 999 to seek immediate help.”