‘Largest flu vaccine programme in UK history’ could save thousands of lives

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Experts have warned that the condition could claim as many as 60,000 lives – fuelled by waning immunity and an unpredictable influenza season. There were zero deaths recorded by Public Health England (PHE) last year, and unusually low rates worldwide have made it difficult for scientists to foresee which strains will circulate in the next few months. A triple whammy resurgence of flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses could spell disaster for the NHS.

More than 35 million people are eligible for a jab this winter and 30 million will be offered top-up COVID-19 doses.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “This year we are rolling out the largest flu vaccine programme in our history, alongside the new COVID-19 booster vaccine rollout. Both are important to provide vital protection not only to yourself but also your loved ones, while also helping to ease pressure on the NHS.”

Mr Javid said COVID-19 jabs were thought to have saved more than 130,000 lives in England alone. He added: “The COVID-19 vaccine programme is a fantastic example of how successful vaccination programmes can be. It is vital we continue that incredible progress with all those eligible ensuring they get both their flu and COVID-19 booster injections as soon as they are invited.”

In an average year, around 11,000 people are killed by flu in England. Last year there were no deaths reported to PHE and barely any hospital admissions as lockdown restrictions kept the virus at bay. Experts have predicted a possible resur- gence this winter.

Modelling released by the Academy of Medical Sciences in July suggested there could be between 15,000-60,000 flu deaths, and highlighted the importance of high vaccine uptake and other measures to prevent that.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said flu was a “significant public health concern”. He added: “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. For the first time we will have COVID-19 and flu co-circulating.

“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. Both these viruses are serious: they can both spread easily, cause hospitalisation and be fatal. It is important that people get their vaccines as soon as they can.”

COVID-19 cases may also rise as people mix indoors this winter. Yesterday there were 40,701 new COVID-19 cases reported in the UK – the most for a month – and 122 deaths.

Research by PHE suggests a person infected with flu and COVID-19 at the same time is more than twice as likely to die, compared with someone with COVID-19 only. The flu programme has expanded this year to include all secondary school children up to Year 11 for the first time. More vaccinators than ever will help to dish out the jabs as officials aim for a record uptake.

Last winter, coverage hit the highest levels among school children (62 per cent), healthcare workers (77 per cent), youngsters aged two and three (57 per cent), atrisk people aged six months to 64 years (53 per cent) and over-65s (81 per cent).

This year over-65s are being offered a quadrivalent vaccine, which protects against four strains of influenza, instead of the trivalent vaccine used last year. In some areas the jabs may be given in the same appointment, one in each arm.

NHS deputy vaccination programme lead Dr Nikki Kanani said: “Flu and COVID-19 both cost lives and the increased threat from the two deadly viruses this winter makes it even more important for people to continue sticking to good habits like washing their hands regularly. It’s important anyone eligible comes forward for a flu vaccine as soon as possible and books in their booster when they are invited. The vaccines are safe, effective and the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones this winter.”

Threat on ITV’s This Morning, has starred in a campaign film with other medics to explain why the jabs are more important than ever. He said: “We are well aware of the threat posed by COVID-19 by now but we can’t forget about flu which can also be deadly. Luckily, we know the best form of protection is to get vaccinated against both viruses, and they are free to those eligible.”

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK said: “This year it’s more important than ever to take up the offer of a flu jab and COVID-19 booster. Both illnesses are fully capable of taking a terrible toll on an older person but being vaccinated will help keep you, and those around you, safe and well.” A recent survey of 3,000 people found many underestimated the dangers of flu, with more than a quarter not knowing it could kill.

Low flu transmission due to lockdown might mean less immunity

Comment by Dame Anne Johnson

FLU is always unpredictable. It’s difficult to predict because the strains that circulate change from one year to the next.

Each year, an international group looks around the world to see which variants have been circulating most recently and it puts those into the vaccine so that they contain the most up-to-date strains.

But if you’ve got low levels of flu transmission – as we did last year because of all the lockdowns – it is more difficult to make those predictions.

The amount of flu also depends on how much immunity there is in the general population.

Because we have had two years without many infections there may be some waning of immunity, which might mean more flu this year than usual.

As restrictions have relaxed, people are in contact with each other more and, despite the vaccine campaign, we are seeing continued high levels of COVID-19 transmission.

It’s causing much lower levels of illness but we have still got the challenge of COVID-19, with most recent estimates of one in 85 people currently infected.

The NHS is also currently under a lot of stress with a big backlog of patients and in the winter months we always see additional pressures. It has always been a challenge to get high flu vaccine uptake, but it was much better last year.

We also welcome the extension of eligibility for the flu jab to new groups this year, including more schoolchildren.

At the moment there’s little flu activity. But we have to be cautious and see what emerges in the coming months.

That will depend on several things including the uptake of flu jabs and continuing precautions people might be taking for COVID-19 – hand washing, mask wearing, self-isolation when you’re ill – which also protect us from flu.

All those things will help take pressure off the NHS, which desperately needs to catch up with the backlog of patients.

Dame Anne Johnson is Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at University College London

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