Flu hospitalizations in England soar as NHS prepares for severe outbreak

Nurses strike at Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle – Raoul Dixon/NNP

Flu hospitalizations in England have jumped by more than 40% in a week as the NHS prepares for one of the worst virus outbreaks in years.

Analysis of NHS data by The Telegraph shows rates are more than eight times higher than expected at this time of year.

On the current trajectory, admissions next week could surpass the peak of the 2017-18 outbreak – one of the worst in 20 years – which resulted in nearly 30,000 deaths.

Flu hospitalizations are so high that they have exceeded Covid admissions for the first time since the pandemic began. Data shows they are now 6.76 per 100,000 people in England, compared to 6.61 per 100,000 for Covid.

The number of flu patients rose from 966 to 1,377 last week – well above the 22 recorded at the same time last year.

The rise couldn’t come at a worse time for the NHS. It already suffers from the largest backlog of treatment in its history, which is expected to be exacerbated by strikes by nurses and paramedics.

Tens of thousands of nurses took to the picket lines on Thursday in the first national strike by members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), prompting the cancellation of around 70,000 appointments and operations.

Further industrial action is scheduled for December 20, with the MRC expected to consider three more strikes in the new year – when flu cases typically peak. Young doctors also plan to vote for a strike in January.

Paramedics will be out next week amid fears that heart attack and stroke victims will be left without ambulances.

Ambulance unions and trusts remain locked in talks over who will receive an answer during the strikes, which are due to start on Wednesday. No national agreement has been reached on what constitutes ‘life and limb’ cover, which the unions have agreed to provide.

Steve Barclay, the health secretary, said on Thursday the government was having “very active discussions” in a bid to ensure emergencies were addressed, while health chiefs warned action claim would lead to “a different magnitude of risk” for patients.

It comes as new figures show NHS 111 helplines were overwhelmed before the strikes began, with more than half of calls dropped amid ever-longer waits.

The health service is also dealing with an outbreak of Strep A, which has killed 16 children in England, with GPs considering offering preventative antibiotics to over-75s to avert a spike in cases among the elderly over Christmas.

The government has introduced severe shortage protocols for three penicillin drugs used to treat the bacteria, meaning pharmacists can legally supply alternative forms if they don’t have the specific formulation listed on the prescription.

Dr Conall Watson, consultant epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said: “Flu is now circulating widely and we have seen a sharp rise in the rate of flu hospitalizations this week, particularly among the less five years or more. -85s.

“Admissions are now at their highest since the 2017-18 season, and we expect the number of cases to continue to rise as we move into winter.”

The UKHSA has urged people to get a flu shot, warning that uptake in young children is low while admissions in this age group are high. Fewer than four in ten children aged two and three have been vaccinated, while admission rates for under-fives more than doubled in a week, from 8.41 to 20.70 per 100,000.

Admissions for Covid have also increased slightly over the past week, with a number of care home outbreaks as health experts warned people to stay home and avoid contact with the others in case of discomfort.

Hospital admission rates are highest in the South West, at 9.68 per 100,000 population, while flu hospitalization rates are highest in London, where they reached 14, 24 per 100,000.

Dr Jamie Lopez Bernal, consultant epidemiologist for vaccination and countermeasures at UKHSA, said: “We are seeing an increase in flu, Covid and other winter viruses as people mix more with the interior this winter.

“Covid hospitalizations are highest in the oldest age groups, so it is particularly important that all eligible people continue to come forward to accept their booster shot.

“If you are not feeling well this winter, try to stay home and avoid contact with other people, especially the elderly or vulnerable – this will help prevent the spread of infection.”

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