As many as 60,000 people could die from flu this winter, scientists have said as they warned that a combination of seasonal viruses and Covid-19 could mean that the NHS is “unable to cope” this winter.
Experts said that if left unchecked, the flu season could be particularly deadly this year but a series of measures could help mitigate the risks including the enhanced flu jab programme and rapid tests for flu.
The new report warned that a mix of Covid-19, influenza (flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), could put severe strain the NHS this winter.
Scientists said that people who are sick should “stay out of the way” to avoid spreading flu and other winter viruses and stop the annual pressure put on the NHS.
Covid-19 restrictions meant that many respiratory viruses were kept at bay last winter.
But some experts have raised concern about what this could mean for population immunity to such illnesses and virologists have predicted that they will return this year as people socialise more.
The new report from the Academy of Medical Sciences states there is still high levels of uncertainty around the effect flu and other respiratory illness could have on the NHS over the winter.
The new report stats that flu and RSV hospital admissions and deaths could be twice that seen in a “normal” year and could coincide with an increase in Covid-19 infections.
Models suggest between 15,000 and 60,000 could die from flu this winter.
And due to the current wave of infections the NHS could face difficulties trying to catch up on the backlog of care – with more than 5 million people in England on the waiting list.
The report highlights other problems that the health service faces going into winter including staff shortages and reduced bed capacity.
On top of this, people putting off seeking help for illness could also lead to a rise in support needed for conditions such as asthma, heart attack and stroke this winter.
But experts said steps can be taken to reduce the risks, including the widespread flu campaign which is expected to take place later this year for over 50s.
They also called for the expansion of Covid-19 testing to also include tests for flu and RSV – for instance if GPs were able to quickly confirm whether a patient has flu they would be able to prescribe their antiviral medication sooner which means that the person’s illness would be reduced, and lessen the burden on the NHS.
More must be done to support people self isolate and the NHS needs a “boost” of staff, bed numbers and capacity, the authors said.
Meanwhile they called on the Government to give more accessible guidelines about the precautions the public can take to protect themselves and those around them from Covid-19, such as wearing face coverings in crowded indoor spaces, physical distancing and minimising transmission when infected.
Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, chair of the Expert Advisory Group which wrote the report, said: “There are four main challenges: firstly a surge in respiratory viruses could cause wide-spread ill health and put pressure on the NHS.
“Secondly, we’re dealing with a third wave of Covid-19 and multiple outbreaks and the NHS has got to catch up with the backlog that it has accumulated over the last 15 months or so, and that’s going to be a real challenge.
“Thirdly, the NHS is already under pressure, so is likely not to be able to cope with these winter challenges going forward.
“Finally the worse physical and mental health health within the UK population due to the pandemic.”
He added: “Society as a whole will have learned from the last 15 months that it isn’t acceptable that (we had) all these respiratory viruses washing around in the winter and nearly closing our National Health Service.
“If there are things we should do top prevent transmission we should do that. Even if it means wearing mas and respecting each other’s space.”
He added: “We really do deserve to have a change in the way we operate as a society to stop the annual continual pressure on the health service created by all these viruses and that just means a change in behaviour.”
Professor Dame Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences and Expert Advisory Group member, added: “We’re not saying we’re about to have the worst winter ever, we’re saying we have got a bunch of uncertain things that could hit us in winter that we need to think about mitigating now.”
She added: “I hope we will take forward some of these behavioural changes as a society. When you’re sick, stay out of the way because that’s actually when you’re most infectious, get your test – if you have got Covid you need to continue with that careful self isolation.”
Dame Anne said that the flu figures are “uncertain” and the 60,000 figure is an “an unlikely worst case scenarios”, adding” flu is horribly unpredictable”.
Professor Azra Ghani, Expert Advisory Group member, added: “We have never experienced this type of thing where society has really shut down and really reduced transmission to this extent. It’s very difficult to know what impact this will have.
“It’s really just a warning to say ‘ we can do something about this , this isn’t an inevitable, we can put measures in place and reduce the impact.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS staff have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic responding to increased demand by expanding critical care capacity by 50% in hospitals, managing admissions through mutual aid and working with the independent sector.
“And ahead of winter, the NHS will continue with tried and tested plans to support hospitals so that they can continue to offer patients the care they need while restoring routine operations back to pre-pandemic levels and vaccinating the country against Covid.”
It comes as the NHS announced a boost to ambulance staff numbers ahead of winter.
The NHS in England said that it would be awarding ambulance trusts a £55 million boost to help alleviate pressures including recruiting more 999 staff, crews and clinicians as well as more liaison officers who handle the handover of patients from ambulances to hospitals.