Anyone with Covid or flu symptoms should stay at home this Christmas and avoid celebrating with elderly relatives, health chiefs have warned.
It comes as hospital admissions for flu have reached the highest level for five years, while admissions for people with coronavirus have soared to the highest level in almost two months.
In England, a total of 8,643 patients in hospital had tested positive for Covid on 21 December - a rise of 29% on the previous week and the highest point since 28 October, NHS data shows. The rate of Covid hospital admissions stood at 9.6 per 100,000 people last week, slightly above the equivalent rate for flu admissions at 8.3 per 100,000.
Flu admissions were higher than those for Covid earlier this month but have now fallen behind, although both sets of rates are continuing to increase week-on-week.
The latest figures confirm that coronavirus is circulating at increasing levels yet again, but still remains well below the peaks reached earlier this year, when hospital numbers topped 14,000 during the summer and 16,000 in the spring.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) fears that the rising number of infections from both viruses could put elderly people at risk this winter, prompting warnings to stay at home alone this Christmas if you feel unwell.
Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at the UKHSA, said: “We are seeing a rise in cases and hospital admissions for both flu and Covid-19 as people continue to mix indoors this winter.
“Hospitalisation rates due to Covid-19 remain highest in those aged 65 and over, so it is vital that everyone who is eligible continues to come forward to accept their booster jab before the end of the year.
“Both Covid-19 and flu can cause severe illness or even death for those most vulnerable in our communities, and so it is also important to avoid contact with other people if you are unwell in order to help stop infections spreading over the Christmas and new year period.”
‘Wear face coverings to cut transmission’
Around two-thirds of patients in hospital who test positive for Covid are primarily being treated for something else, but they need to be isolated from those who do not have the virus.
The quarantine requirements are putting added stress on NHS staff already facing pressures from increased demand, delays in discharging medically fit patients, and the spread of other winter infections.
Separate figures show there has been a surge in the number of flu patients in critical care beds, with the daily average standing at 149 last week, up 72% from 87. At the equivalent point in 2021, the NHS had only two flu patients a day in critical care and 32 in general beds.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive at NHS Providers, said trust leaders are expecting this Christmas to be “one of their darkest to date” due to ongoing strike action and staff shortages, while a “greater severity of illness” is putting a “massive strain on the entire health and care system”.
Health chiefs are urging all those who are eligible to get vaccinated against both Covid and flu to help protect against severe illness, and to take strict precautions to minimise the risk of transmission, including self-isolating and wearing face masks.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the UKHSA, said: “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.
“Most children aged two and three can get a nasal spray flu vaccine through their GP surgery. If you are pregnant or in a clinical risk group, you are also at greater risk, so it is even more important you take up the offer. Anyone over 50 can get a free flu or COVID-19 booster vaccine which can be booked online.
“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.”