Health officials fear up to 60,000 flu deaths this winter

Lack of immunity to flu among public ‘a significant concern’, Prof Van-Tam warns

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Friday 08 October 2021 00:11

NHS leaders and health officials fear there is a realistic possibility 60,000 people could die from flu this winter, as the government renewed calls for people to get vaccinated against the influenza virus as soon as possible.

Cases of coronavirus, flu and other respiratory infections are likely to surge in the months ahead, experts say, culminating in increased hospitalisations and rising pressure on health services across England.

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the lack of flu last year made the threat this winter a “significant public health concern”.

A lack of population immunity due to its suppression over the past year by Covid restrictions could contribute to between 15,000 and 60,000 flu deaths, according to modelling from the Academy of Medical Sciences.

A senior government health official warned it was “realistic” the death toll could reach the higher end of that estimate if vaccine coverage against influenza isn’t high enough for the winter.

As part of new targets unveiled on Friday, the NHS is aiming to roll out the flu jab to at least 85 per cent of people aged 65 and over. It also hopes to reach at least 75 per cent of people with underlying health conditions, at least 75 per cent of pregnant women, 70 per cent of eligible children and at least 85 per cent of all health and social care workers.

“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,” said Prof Van-Tam.

“We will see flu circulate this winter; it might be higher than usual and that makes it a significant public health concern.”

More than 35 million people in England are set to be offered the flu vaccine – though it’s unclear how many have received their jab so far, with data set to be released by the UK Health Security Agency next Thursday.

However, the success of the flu vaccination programme throughout England and the rest of the UK will not only be dependent upon uptake, but the effectiveness of the jab itself.

In a typical year, scientists preparing for winter in the northern hemisphere will monitor the main strains of influenza circulating throughout the southern populations and, prior to its rollout, tailor the vaccine accordingly.

But this process has been complicated due to the low amount of flu in circulation globally over the past 18 months, leaving uncertainty over which influenza strains to target.

As such, government health officials have warned that an estimation for the effectiveness of this year’s flu jab is not possible.

Last month, the World Influenza Centre at the Francis Crick Institute told The Independent that “a good result for vaccine effectiveness would be 60 to 70 per cent – thus reducing flu levels in the community by over half. This is a huge benefit to the healthcare system.”

The rollout of Covid booster jabs is meanwhile underway; around 1.7 million people have received a third dose to date, out of 28 million eligible individuals. And around 66 per cent of all UK adults have been double-jabbed against Covid-19.

The government’s push to encourage uptake of the flu and Covid vaccines coincides with new research that shows that adults in England are underestimating the combined threat posed by the two viruses.

People infected with both influenza and coronavirus are more than twice as likely to die than those infected with Covid alone – yet nearly one third of people are unaware that the two pathogens can circulate at the same time.

According to a government-commissioned survey of 3,000 people, more than a quarter did not know that flu can be fatal and more than 50 per cent underestimated the number of individuals who die from flu in an average year – roughly 11,000.

However, this figure can be far higher. An excess of 50,000 people died during the 2017-18 flu season, in what was the worst winter on record for more than 40 years.

Although current levels of flu activity in the population are extremely low, Prof Van-Tam said the public needs to take the virus seriously this winter, alongside Covid-19. “They can both spread easily, cause hospitalisation and they can both be fatal,” he said. “It is really important that people get their vaccines as soon as they can.”

Dr Nikki Kanani, deputy lead of the NHS vaccination programme, said the county was facing “an increased threat from the two deadly viruses this winter,” adding that the vaccines remain the “best thing you can do to protect yourself”.

Hospitals across the country have begun bracing for the coming months, with some already at breaking point in the face of the large NHS waiting patient list, a recent spike in demand for emergency care, and pressures caused by Covid-19.

On Monday, The Independent reported that 210 patients were crowded into the accident and emergency department of London’s North Middlesex Hospital – one of its highest ever figures. In Nottingham, health bosses declared an alert over 143 patients waiting to be seen, with some experiencing “unacceptably long waits”.

And late last month, 800 patients came through the doors of Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary’s A&E department and Urgent Treatment Centres, in what was the busiest day on record for the city’s hospital services.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said the country was on course for a “challenging winter”.

Demands on health services are likely to be exacerbated by the rising prevalence of long Covid. More than 1 million people living in the UK are experiencing persistent symptoms after an infection of coronavirus, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday.

In its latest survey of private households up to 5 September, more than 830,000 people said they still had symptoms at least 12 weeks after being infected – yet long Covid clinics established by the NHS to treat the condition only have capacity for 68,000 individuals.

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