England tackles 'twindemic' as flu patients surge nearly 80% in hospitals

The UK's National Health Services also experiencing soaring staff absences

The flu virus is recirculating after a hiatus during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, UK data shows. PA
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The number of flu patients in hospitals in England has jumped by nearly 80 per cent in a week, data compiled by the UK's National Health Service shows.

There were 3,746 patients a day in hospital with flu in the week ending on Christmas Day, figures from NHS England show, up from 2,088 a day in the week before. The figures, published on Friday, showed an increase of 79.4 per cent.

Last month, average daily tallies of flu patients in hospitals stood at 520.

The week-on-week jump suggests the virus is recirculating after a hiatus during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the same period last year there were only 34 patients in hospital with flu.

The NHS England workforce has also been affected by the spread of viruses as winter sets in, with absences due to Covid each day up almost half on last month, from 5,448 to 8,029.

The total number of workers calling in sick in December has shot up by a fifth from November, from 52,556 to 63,296 a day.

Medical experts in September warned the NHS was facing its worst flu season for years.

There are now fears of potential sharp rise in Covid cases due to China reopening its borders, and the UK government is considering introducing restrictions on passengers from that country.

The surge in cases of flu and other viruses has placed additional strain on the NHS, still reeling from two years of the pandemic and, more recently, affected by strike action. Unions representing ambulance workers and nurses are embroiled in disputes with the government over pay, while junior doctors have also indicated they could follow their colleagues in walkouts in the new year.

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Saffron Cordery, NHS Providers’ interim chief executive, said the flu trend was “worrying” and it contributed to “unacceptably high bed occupancy rates, which make it much harder to ensure safe high quality care.”

Bed occupancy in hospitals across England is at more than 93 per compared to 86 per cent for the same period last year.

The surge in flu admissions is being felt throughout the system, Ms Cordery said, affecting emergency services, ambulances, mental health and community care.

She also said the increase in staff illnesses “is another concern, compounding severe workforce shortages.”

“Staff are working flat out in very difficult circumstances to minimise disruption for patients,” she said. “The worry is that as these pressures intensify, with the potential further impact of industrial action, we could see more delays in the new year.”

Prof Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said the increase in flu cases was straining the already-burdened health service and urged people to seek help only when necessary.

“Sadly, these latest flu numbers show our fears of a ‘twindemic’ have been realised, with cases up seven-fold in just a month and the continued impact of Covid hitting staff hard, with related absences up almost 50 per cent on the end of November,” he said.

“As well as flu, the NHS continues to be under significant pressure, with high bed occupancy, more than 12,000 beds taken up by patients medically fit for discharge, and demand for the 111 service remaining high, so please do make the most of 111 online, and only call 999 or visit [Accident and Emergency units] in an emergency.

“It is clear this is no time to be complacent and the risk of serious illness is very real, so with nearly 350,000 available vaccination appointments next week it is important that everyone eligible comes forward and gets their Covid and flu jabs at the earliest opportunity.”

Updated: January 03, 2023, 11:01 AM