UK must prepare for 'hard winter' of flu, top medic warns

Rebecca Speare-Cole
·3-min read
Dr Susan Hopkins tells Andrew Marr that the UK needs to prepare for a
Dr Susan Hopkins tells Andrew Marr that the UK needs to prepare for a "hard winter". (BBC)

The UK must prepare for a “hard winter” since the population could be less immune to other respiratory illnesses such as flu, a top medic has warned.

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Dr Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 strategic response director at Public Health England (PHE), said the country could see surges of other respiratory diseases, as well as coronavirus, come autumn.

It comes as the UK continues to roll out its vaccine program and starts to ease lockdown restrictions with summer approaching.

Asked if the country could be back in a difficult situation by autumn, Hopkins said: “I think it is really difficult to predict what is going to happen in the future and six months away is a long time."

Read: We are facing difficult economic challenges’: Gavin Williamson defends 1% nurses pay rise

But she added: “I think we have to prepare for a hard winter, not only with coronavirus, but we've had a year of almost no respiratory viruses of any other type and that means, potentially the population immunity to that is less.

"So we could see surges in flu. We could see surges in other respiratory viruses and other respiratory pathogens.

“It’s really important that we are prepared from the NHS point of view, from public health and contact tracing, that we have everything ready to prepare for a difficult autumn and we hope that it won’t occur and that it will be a normal winter for all of us.”

Watch: COVID-19 - New variants 'very unlikely to send us back to square one'

Hopkins said the UK needed to be "better prepared" than it was last autumn when new variants of the coronavirus virus emerged.

However, she added that it was her role as a government advisor to "prepare for worst-case scenarios".

"It doesn't mean that they'll necessarily happen, but my job is to make sure that we have options available for the country in case things are not as satisfactory as we'd all like them to be," she said.

Flu levels have been drastically cut due to social distancing measures put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Read more:
'Everyone's frightened': Life on the remote UK islands with just 70 COVID cases
‘No evidence’ COVID variant of concern has been transmitted in the UK, Matt Hancock says

According to some reports, the disease has been "almost wiped out" with the number of people being struck down by it dropping to its lowest levels in 130 years.

But experts, including Sage member Professor John Edmonds, have been warning that the lack of circulation of influenza means people's immunity levels have fallen and could result in a dramatic flu outbreak next winter.

Meanwhile, PHE research on COVID between January and April among nearly 20,000 hospital patients found that the risk of dying is twice as high for people with coronavirus who catch flu compared to coronavirus alone, according to the BBC.

Watch: How England will leave lockdown