Flu could pose a bigger threat than Covid this winter as Britain risks being hit by one of its worst outbreaks for years, experts have warned.
Influenza was virtually non-existent last season as everything from a record vaccination uptake, coronavirus lockdowns, social distancing, face masks and improved hygiene habits helped to reduce transmission.
The number of flu sufferers plunged by more than 95 per cent to levels not seen for 130 years, but scientists fear waning immunity levels during the pandemic could lead to a severe resurgence of the contagious disease.
Experts fear a scenario where a more transmissible strain emerges and the vaccine isn't as effective due to scientists' struggle to predict this year's dominant strains.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, warned that the NHS "faces a perfect storm of Covid-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses" in addition to a "growing backlog of care".
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The NHS could face "surges in flu" and other respiratory illnesses, a top expert has warned
People infected with both the flu and Covid-19 are more than twice as likely to die compared with someone infected with coronavirus alone, a study by Public Health England (PHE) found.
The Department of Health has assured Brits it is preparing for flu season, and new Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said he expects record high uptake for jabs this year.
A Covid vaccine booster campaign is expected to begin this autumn to increase immunity for more than 32 million Brits, and those jabs could be given alongside flu shots, Mr Javid said.
Rates of flu could be much higher than normal this year as life shifts "back to normal" following the pandemic, said Cheryl Lythgoe, matron at Benenden Health.
She said: "As we don’t know how the situation will change over the next few months, it’s important to protect yourself and get vaccinated against flu.
Experts say everyone should get a jab to protect them against the flu
"By getting the jab, you’re not just protecting yourself – you’re ensuring you don’t pass the virus onto families and vulnerable contacts.
"Seasonal flu kills between 10,000-30,000 people per year and puts many more in hospital, so our NHS services, which are absolutely stretched to their limits, will also benefit."
Professor Martin Michaelis, an expert on molecular medicine at the University of Kent, said: "A large flu epidemic would put significant strain on the healthcare system and our hospitals.
"I would not be surprised if we had another rough and bumpy winter, and we should do everything we can to avoid large flu and large Covid-19 outbreaks."
Typically, circulating flu strains are identified prior to the season and vaccines are then designed to protect against them, but that has been difficult this year due to the low number of cases last season.
Professor Michaelis said: "The accuracy of these predictions varies and sometimes the vaccines do not match the influenza virus strains that are causing the seasonal influenza outbreak as much as we would have hoped.
"This can mean that the efficacy of the vaccines is limited.
"After a year with hardly any flu cases it will be particularly difficult to predict which influenza viruses will cause the next flu epidemic.
"Thus, influenza vaccines may not provide the best protection, because unexpected influenza virus strains may be circulating during the flu season."
He added: "Even if a vaccine does not match the circulating influenza virus strains that well there will still be some level of protection."
"I also believe that individuals coming forward for the flu jab will increase massively, particularly as we have witnessed first hand the benefits of a vaccination program and how it offers a level of immunity to a virus."
Mr Javid recently confirmed the Government is considering whether to give a booster vaccine for coronavirus along with the flu jab over the winter.
If that happens, uptake of the flu vaccine "should be at record highs", he predicted.
He told MPs on July 5: “Because of the measures in place this winter, almost nobody in the UK had flu for 18 months now, that’s obviously a good thing but it does mean that immunity from flu is down.
"This winter’s flu campaign will be more important than ever and we’re currently looking at whether we can give people the Covid-19 booster shot and the flu jab at the same time.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The government is getting ready for the next influenza season to ensure the health service can provide as many flu vaccines to people as possible – providing wide protection from the flu.
“Further details of the winter vaccination programme will be set out in due course.”