A potentially fatal strain of flu currently in circulation worldwide could be more of a threat to public health than COVID this winter, a senior government health adviser has warned.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned that COVID will still present a major challenge for the NHS, but said low levels of residual immunity to flu in the general population were concerning in what could be one of the more difficult winters for the health service.
Flu and other respiratory illnesses are expected to rebound this winter after being largely suppressed through lockdowns and social distancing during the pandemic.
Health agencies in Britain monitor flu infection patterns in Australia to try to predict what will happen in Europe when the seasons change.
Flu came early to Australia this year, driven largely by infections in children. The strain driving the surge in the southern hemisphere is H3N2, the same one that caused about 20,000 deaths and 40,000 hospital admissions during the 2017/2018 flu season in Britain.
As a result, the government is urging all 30 million people eligible for flu and COVID vaccines to get jabbed.
There was a record uptake of the flu jab in people aged 65 and over in 2021/22, with 82% of this age group getting vaccinated.
However, the uptake among people in clinically at-risk groups and pregnant women was lower and it is feared vaccine complacency could leave more people vulnerable to infection.
Dr Hopkins said: "Flu and COVID-19 are unpredictable but there are strong indications we could be facing the threat of widely circulating flu, lower levels of natural immunity due to less exposure over the last three winters and an increase in COVID-19 circulating with lots of variants that can evade the immune response.
"This combination poses a serious risk to our health, particularly those in high-risk groups.
"The H3N2 flu strain can cause particularly severe illness. If you are elderly or vulnerable because of other conditions you are at greater risk, so getting the flu jab is a sensible, potentially life-saving thing to do.
"We are extremely fortunate to have vaccines against these two diseases Most eligible groups have been selected because they are at higher risk of severe illness.
"Younger children are unlikely to have built up any natural immunity to flu and therefore it is particularly important they take the nasal spray vaccine this year.
"So, if you are offered a jab, please come forward to protect yourself and help reduce the burden on our health services."
All primary school children and some secondary school children are eligible for the flu nasal spray this year which is usually administered at schools.
GP surgeries are also inviting children aged two and three years old to come forward for this nasal spray vaccination at their practices. This younger age group is being targeted because they will not have encountered flu yet so won't have any natural immunity.
Along with the predicted flu wave, current data shows COVID-19 infections are beginning to rise ahead of winter leading some doctors to warn of a "twindemic".
Getting flu and COVID together could have serious health implications. Studies early in the pandemic showed that people who catch both flu and COVID at the same time, known as co-infection, are around twice as likely to die as those who only have COVID-19.