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12 October 2021

How bad is the winter flu and will it cause a winter lockdown?

The NHS is urging people to get vaccinated as new data suggests that 15,000-60,000 people could die from seasonal flu this year.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

While catching Covid-19 has been a prime concern for many Brits over the past 18 months, a recent spike in colds and illness among the population has left many asking themselves: is this seasonal flu or Covid?

The co-circulation of both Covid-19 and the winter flu poses a number of challenges over the coming months. The government has launched its largest-ever seasonal flu vaccination campaign to try and encourage people, especially those in the most vulnerable groups – such as the elderly and those who are immunocompromised – to get jabbed.

In addition to the flu vaccination drive, more than two million Covid booster jabs have been administered in England to try and offer better protection to at-risk groups and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed this winter.

Questions remain, however, over what the next few months will bring with both seasonal flu and Covid in circulation.

Can you catch the flu and Covid?

According to Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), early indications show that it is possible to catch both flu and Covid at the same time – and if you do, you are “twice as likely” to die in comparison to if you only caught Covid.

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“This is probably the first season where we will have significant amounts of Covid circulating as well as flu,” she told the Andrew Marr Show. “People’s behaviours have changed, we are mixing more, winter weather is coming along, everybody is going into enclosed spaces.”

A report from the Academy of Medical Sciences estimates that between 15,000-60,000 people could die from the flu this winter (yearly deaths typically average 11,000). The latest government figures reveal that the UK recorded 40,224 Covid-19 cases on 11 October.

Are the symptoms of flu and Covid different?

There is a significant amount of crossover between flu and Covid symptoms, which can make distinguishing each illness difficult.

Current NHS advice is to look out for “typical” Covid symptoms, including a new, continuous cough, a fever or high temperature, and a loss of or change to smell or taste – which is perhaps the biggest differentiator between the two.

The only way to get a conclusive answer is by being tested, which is available to people through a number of routes.

How is the NHS preparing?

In anticipation of rising flu and Covid cases, the NHS is urging people to get vaccinated against both the flu and Covid – and for those who have already received both vaccinations to get booster jabs if they are vulnerable.

Those who are over 50, are pregnant, or who live in care homes, as well as frontline health and social care workers are among the key groups the NHS is encouraging to get the flu jab.

The same groups and others are also being encouraged to get a third booster Covid jab to better protect themselves over the winter. And, after much discussion, children aged 12-17 are now able to get vaccinated – but the roll-out for children has been criticised for its slow pace.

Though concerns of waning vaccine efficacy persist, the portfolio of current vaccines still offer good protection against Covid. More than 45 million people across the UK have received both doses – which is more than 68 per cent of the nation.

High vaccination rates protect more people and mean that the NHS is less likely to become overwhelmed over the next few months as hospitalisations from both Covid and the flu will inevitably rise.

What happened last year?

The spread of the flu was stifled last year as a result of on and off lockdown restrictions last winter, with the number of recorded flu-related deaths being lower than average.

According to Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, people’s natural immunity to the flu (from catching and recovering from it) is lower than previous years, which could cause infection rates to “be higher than usual” this winter. This would be a “a significant public health concern”.

Will we go into another lockdown this winter?

There is currently no indication that Britain will be subject to any local or national lockdowns this winter.

While the government has not revoked powers to impose lockdowns – so it would be possible for the government to legislate another one – there are a number of less extreme measures that could be implemented to slow the spread of both the flu and Covid.

The re-introduction of social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and instructions to work from home if possible, in addition to limits on indoor gatherings and the possibility of vaccine passports, are all feasible under the “Plan B” option that the government outlined in its Covid winter plan.

The co-circulation of Covid and the winter flu over the next few months means that the government must be vigilant and proactive in its response, not only to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, but also to save lives.

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