Flu and norovirus levels ‘creeping up’ as NHS braces for winter pressures

The number of people in hospital in England with winter viruses such as norovirus and flu is “creeping up”, figures show.

Health chiefs have said to expect further increases and growing pressure on emergency departments as the NHS faces the combined impact of cold weather, social mixing at Christmas parties and looming strike action by junior doctors.

An average of 406 adult hospital beds were filled last week by patients with diarrhoea and vomiting or norovirus-like symptoms, according to data from NHS England.

That was up 16% from 351 beds the previous week and more than quarter (28%) on this point last year, when the average stood at 318.

Norovirus patients in hospital in England
(PA Graphics)

Norovirus is the most common infectious cause of diarrhoea and vomiting.

It spreads easily through contact with someone who has the virus or with contaminated surfaces.

While most people make a full recovery within two or three days, the virus can lead to dehydration, especially among the very young, the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.

The figures have been published as part of the weekly snapshot of how the NHS in England is performing this winter.

They show the number of people in hospital with flu has also risen week-on-week but remains well below levels seen at this stage in 2022.

An average of 243 flu patients were in hospital beds in England each day last week, including nine in critical care, up 52% from 160 the previous week.

The total stood at 772 at this point last year and would rise sharply throughout December as the UK experienced its worst flu season for a decade.

People have been urged to book their flu and Covid-19 vaccinations as soon as possible, ahead of the closure of the national booking system next week.

Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at the UK Health Security Agency, said: “Millions of eligible people are missing out on vital vaccinations that will provide protection against severe disease this winter.

“Pregnant women, their unborn babies and those in clinical risk groups are at higher risk of complication from flu. Vaccinating pregnant women also helps to provide protection to newborn babies who will be born during the flu season.

“If you are the parent of a child aged two or three, don’t forget that they are also eligible for the flu vaccine and this can be booked via your GP – the nasal spray will help prevent hospitalisations, reduce the spread of flu in the community and avoid you having to juggle a sick child with work and other commitments.”

Ambulance handovers delayed by at least 30 minutes at hospitals in England
(PA Graphics)

Some 38% of GP patients in England under the age of 65 and in a clinical risk group are estimated to have received their flu vaccine for this season, along with 28% of all pregnant women, while uptake stands at 76% among all those aged 65 and over.

After the NHS national booking system has closed, people eligible for a vaccine can still speak to their GP or a local pharmacist about getting their jabs.

Professor Julian Redhead, NHS England’s national clinical director for urgent and emergency care, said the latest flu and novovirus figures will come as “no surprise” to NHS staff, who are seeing the number of people coming to emergency departments with viruses “creeping up”.

He said: “Demand on hospitals and staff remains high, and as we experience more spells of cold weather and people gathering indoors for festive events and end-of-year celebrations, we expect to see a continued increase in winter viruses spreading in the community – and in some cases, this will lead to hospital admissions.

Other data in the latest snapshot of NHS performance in England shows that:

– Some 27% of patients arriving by ambulance at hospitals last week waited at least 30 minutes to be handed over to A&E teams, up from 25% the previous week but below the 31% in the equivalent week last year.

– 10% of ambulance handovers last week, or 8,184 patients, were delayed by more than an hour, up slightly from 9% the previous week but below the 16% at this point last year.

– An average of 12,883 hospital beds per day last week were occupied by people ready to be discharged, up from 12,654 the previous week, but lower than 13,720 in the equivalent week last year.

– Some 45% of patients ready to leave hospital last week were actually discharged each day, up from 41% at this point in 2022.

(PA Graphics)

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, the membership organisation for NHS trusts in England, said delayed discharges are a “huge worry” for trust leaders and reflected “stresses and strains” on social care and community services.

“The knock-on effects of this are already being seen at the NHS’ front door with a worrying increase in ambulance handover delays,” she added.

“Hospitals, mental health, community and ambulance services continue to do everything they can to treat patients as quickly and as safely as possible as we head into winter.

“But faced with high bed occupancy, winter bugs and handover delays alongside the spectre of more industrial action by junior doctors in the coming weeks, this is looking increasingly challenging.”

Junior doctors in England belonging to the British Medical Association (BMA) will strike from 7am on December 20 to 7am on December 23 as part of a long-running dispute over pay, with further action planned for early January.

Rory Deighton, Acute Network director at the NHS Confederation, the membership organisation for the healthcare system, said: “While NHS leaders and their teams have put in a herculean effort to prepare for winter we know that viruses and staff absences will only continue to increase.

“These winter pressures can only be exacerbated by the upcoming junior doctors strikes which are scheduled for some of the most difficult weeks of the year for NHS services. The risk is that this fresh wave of industrial action will pile even more pressure on to already stretched services.”