Eligible members of the public are being urged to come forward and receive their free influenza vaccine as the UK braces for its first winter with both seasonal flu and Covid-19 in circulation.
Flu ordinarily kills an average of 11,000 people in England every year but there was little around in 2020 as coronavirus lockdowns meant the usual level of in-person social interactions did not take place, with the majority of citizens shielding in isolation at home and wearing face masks when out and about, rather than crowding together in public spaces unprotected and facing exposure.
Last year’s suppression means that population immunity against the virus may not have been cultivated as normal and it is therefore forecast to make a comeback in 2021 and could cause anywhere between 15,000 and 60,000 deaths, according to modelling by the Academy of Medical Sciences, which took into account the triple threat posed by influenza, Covid and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the leading cause of hospital admissions among the under-fives.
The production of vaccines against flu has also been complicated due to the relative absence of it from the global stage over the last 18 months, which has made it more difficult for scientists to establish which strains to target when modifying existing inoculations, as is common practice every year.
Nevertheless, the government is offering a free NHS flu jab to 35m vulnerable groups in England in the hope of safeguarding them against the bouts of fever, coughing fits, aches and exhaustion that characterise the illness.
The over-50s, younger people with preexisting medical conditions and healthcare workers can receive both a flu vaccine and a Covid booster jab while the former is also being made available to pregnant women and two to 16-year-olds, in a bid to stop the spread through school corridors and classrooms.
GP surgeries will contact eligible patients prompting them to make an appointment at their local clinic or pharmacy, while others not entitled to a free flu vaccine can pay to have one privately, so long as stocks last, at a cost of approximately £15.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to offer the same cover to similar groups, with Scottish teachers and nursery staff also eligible.
“It is really important people get vaccinated,” said Dr Jenny Harries of the UK Health Security Agency, formerly Public Health England. “This is the first winter where we will have seasonal flu and Covid co-circulating.”
Her message was echoed by England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who said: “Not many people got flu last year because of Covid-19 restrictions, so there isn’t as much natural immunity in our communities as usual. We will see flu circulate this winter; it might be higher than usual and that makes it a significant public health concern.
“Covid-19 will still be circulating and with more people mixing indoors, sadly some increases are possible… We need to take this seriously and defend ourselves and the NHS by getting the annual flu jab and the Covid-19 booster when called.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning, Wendy Barclay, Professor of Virology at Imperial College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that although getting the vaccines remains a matter of “personal choice for everyone… it’s worth considering your own circumstance” because it “protects you against the illness but it also protects other people around you”.
Professor Barclay added: “If you’re likely to have an elderly relative whose own immune system doesn’t work as well as yours and therefore although they get their vaccine, it might not work 100 per cent in them, you can help protect them by getting yourself vaccinated as well.”
While the rollout of Covid vaccines has been a triumph in Britain this year and enabled society to return to a semblance of normality with around 78.4 per cent of the adult population now double-jabbed, the disease has not gone away, with the UK recording 40,701 cases, 681 hospital admissions and 122 deaths on Thursday 7 October.
A significant flu outbreak combined with the ongoing transmission of coronavirus could again place the NHS under duress, while a patient unlucky enough to be infected with both diseases at once is thought to be twice as likely to die than with Covid alone.
However, that is a message that has seemingly not gotten through to everyone, with a recent Opinium survey of 3,000 people carried out on behalf of the Cabinet Office revealing that one-in-three did not know the two pathogens could circulate simultaneously, one-in-four did not know that flu could be fatal and one-in-two underestimated the annual death rate.
These last two points are particularly alarming given that Britain suffered its worst flu season in 40 years in 2017-18, when more than 22,000 died.
The government hopes a new TV campaign featuring three doctors, Dr Amir Khan, Dr Dawn Harper and Dr Karan Rajan, will address the problem and encourage people to get vaccinated this winter.
The prevalence of Long Covid provides a further complicating factor this year, with over 1m people in the UK reporting persistent symptoms at least 12 weeks on from their initial infection, according to Office of National Statistics data.