NHS is warned to be on high alert for flu this winterBMJ 2017; 358 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j4284 (Published 13 September 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j4284
The head of NHS England has warned hospitals and GP surgeries to be prepared for a big increase in cases of flu this winter after a heavy season in the southern hemisphere.
Speaking at the Health and Care Innovation Expo in Manchester on Tuesday 12 September, NHS England’s chief executive, Simon Stevens, said that the NHS should be on high alert and should ensure that all measures are taken to prepare for the winter ahead. “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,” he said.
“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. 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,” Stevens said.
Australia’s flu surveillance shows that the number of laboratory confirmed notifications of flu has been more than two and a half times the number in the same period last year.1 For the year to 1 September there was a total of 137 566 notifications of laboratory confirmed cases. The highest number of cases was seen in adults aged 80 or older, with a secondary peak in children aged 5 to 9 years.
Australia’s flu season started earlier than usual this year, but the increase in cases may also have been partly a result of the introduction of rapid testing, the Australian Department of Health said.
Influenza A subtype H3N2 is currently the predominant flu virus circulating in Australia, but influenza B viruses also continue to circulate. Australian officials said that flu vaccine components seemed to be reasonably well matched to the circulating viruses but that the full picture would be known only towards the end of the flu season.
The World Health Organization has reported that in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere and in some countries of South Asia and South East Asia high levels of flu virus activity continue to be reported. It said that H3N2 viruses were predominating worldwide.
GPs in the UK have been told to offer free flu vaccination to all children aged 2 to 8 years, pregnant women, people aged 65 years or over, people in long stay residential care homes, and anyone aged between 6 months and 65 years who are in clinical risk groups.
Stevens’s warning came after NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, warned that patients’ safety would be at risk this winter without an immediate emergency cash injection. It said that between £200m (€220m; $265m) and £350m was needed to improve the NHS’s state of readiness for the upcoming winter.2