Flu season could be most severe in years amid ‘skyrocketing’ hospital admissions as people urged ‘wear masks’

More patients are also staying longer in hospital due to greater severity of illness
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Flu season could be more severe this winter than in the years before the pandemic, health chiefs have warned.

The number of patients in hospital with flu in England has “skyrocketed” according to new NHS data, with admissions overtaking those for Covid earlier this month. Admissions have now slipped behind coronavirus but both are continuing to increase week-on-week.

NHS England said an average of 1,939 people with flu were in hospital each day last week, up 67% on 1,162 the previous week. The number of flu patients in critical care beds has also surged, with the daily average standing at 149 last week, up 72% from 87 the previous week. At the equivalent point last year the NHS had only two flu patients a day in critical care and 32 in general beds.

Data shows the rate of flu admissions currently stands at 8.3 per 100,000 people, up week-on-week from 6.8 per 100,000 and a level not seen since the 2017-18 season, meaning hospital cases for flu are at the highest level for five years.

The UK Health Security Agency said flu admissions are highest among the over 85s, at 42.0 per 100,000 people, and children aged four and under, at 19.4 per 100,000.

Flu season is looking far more severe compared to recent years, health chiefs have warned (Composite: Mark Hall)Flu season is looking far more severe compared to recent years, health chiefs have warned (Composite: Mark Hall)
Flu season is looking far more severe compared to recent years, health chiefs have warned (Composite: Mark Hall)

‘The darkest Christmas to date’

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive at NHS Providers, has warned that trust leaders are expecting this Christmas to be “one of their darkest to date”, with the flu season tipped to be “far more severe” than pre-pandemic years.

She said: “Trust leaders are expecting this Christmas to be one of their darkest to date. As they work hard to mitigate the impact of ongoing strike action, they are also having to contend with an incredibly long list of other serious challenges.

“After very few flu cases in the last two years, in part due to social distancing during the pandemic, this flu season is looking far more severe compared to recent years before the pandemic. The surge in flu has impacted bed occupancy, which continues to be above levels considered safe.

“More patients are also staying longer in hospital due to greater severity of illness and delayed discharges, which remain a real concern and puts a massive strain on the entire health and care system, including community care and social services.”

The UKHSA is advising that people take precautions over the festive season to help prevent transmission, including wearing face masks and self-isolating at home if you feel unwell or have flu symptoms.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the UKHSA, said: “Hospitalisations have increased dramatically in those aged 75 and over in the past week, with admissions among children under five remaining high. ICU admissions have also increased this week.

“NHS services are already under pressure so it’s more important than ever to get protected with the flu vaccine and help keep yourself out of hospital.

“We can all take actions to stop flu and other infections spreading, if you feel unwell try to stay home, and if you have to go out – wear a face covering in enclosed spaces. Wash your hands regularly and try to keep rooms well ventilated.”

All children aged two and three are eligible for a flu nasal spray vaccine which is being offered by local GPs, while those who are aged 50 and over, are in a clinical risk group or are pregnant can get a free flu jab.

NHS England national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis urged anyone who is eligible to get both their flu and Covid jabs. He added: “As well as the impact of industrial action last week, it is clear that the NHS is facing enormous pressure ahead of Christmas with the number of flu cases in hospital and in intensive care rising week-on-week, on top of significant increases in staff sickness rates and near-record demand for services like 111.

“With more industrial action scheduled for next week, there will be disruption but we urge the public to continue to use services wisely by continuing to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies, use 111 online for other health conditions, and take sensible steps to keep yourself and others safe.

“The NHS has prepared for winter extensively with more beds, extra call handlers as well as the expansion of falls response services, control centres and respiratory hubs, but with flu hospitalisations and Covid cases on the rise, the best things you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible.”

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