UK’s NHS braced for worst flu season in its history

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The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is braced for the worst flu season in its history, amid fears that overcrowded hospitals will be unable to cope. The Daily Telegraph reports that the head of the health service has warned that “pressures are going to be real” as he warned that influenza levels are expected to be high.

Simon Stevens said scientists would now re-examine the vaccines amid fears that the current jabs may not hold off the infections. Health service regulators have already warned that hospitals are extremely busy, with too many beds blocked for lack of social care.

The report says in recent years, the NHS has seen ever long waits over winter, with some of the worst waiting times on record last winter. However, for almost a decade the NHS has escaped a heavy flu season, with the last pandemic seen in 2009.

Stevens is quoted in the report as saying: “For the next three, four, five months the top priority for every leader, every part of the NHS is ensuring that the NHS goes into winter in a strong a position as possible. We know we’re going to have more hospital beds open, we know we are better prepared, but we also know that the pressures are going to be real.”

He suggested the indications from the southern hemisphere were worrying. “The signs from Australia and New Zealand – who are just coming out of their winter – are that it has been a heavy flu season and many of the hospitals down there have struggled to cope.

“We know that there is a great deal of work to be done over the next six to eight weeks with our partners in local authorities to put the NHS on the right footing for the winter ahead.”

The report says scientists in Australia have warned that the country is experiencing its worst flu season on record. Australia has reported 98,000 confirmed cases of the flu this season – more than double the rate it was this time last year. There are also twice as many people hospitalised.

Last month Professor Paul Van Buynder from Gold Coast Health and the Immunisation Coalition said: “It looks like we will again get the greatest number of notified cases in Australia we’ve ever seen. I’m confident that this is not just the biggest recorded year in our data but it’s also the largest flu outbreak that we’ve seen for quite some time.”

Stevens suggested the signs from Australia were alarming. “The signs from the southern hemisphere winter have been that flu has been much higher and it has been the variety that puts the most pressure on the old people’s services like care homes,” he said.

“The World Health Organisation is reviewing the vaccines and if that reproduces itself here over this coming winter that is going to mean much more pressure on GP services and hospitals.”

The report says scientists are concerned about “virological drift” where flu evolves so that even if a vaccine works in one country, it may not be effective months later. In 2015, the jab given to millions of Britons was far less effective than usual, because it failed to match the dominant strain.

“The evidence is we are likely to have a more pressurised flu season this year. NHS chiefs have been asked to free up more than 2,000 beds in an attempt to help hospitals cope with extra demand, he said. In some parts of the country, clearly there are real pressures, so we are using the next six to eight weeks to really be clear what the plan there needs to be,” he said.

Stevens said the main type of flu to cause a threat was the H3 strain.

The Daily Telegraph report

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