The UK faces an uncertain winter amid the spread of both viruses, Dr Jenny Harries warned, as she said this year’s flu could be “multi-strain” and reiterated that natural immunity is lower after last year’s lockdown saw much lower numbers affected than over an average winter.
Asked how worried the public should be about flu this winter, she told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: “We should be worried about flu each winter. I think people still don’t realise it can be a fatal disease.
“Recent studies suggest that about 25 per cent of us don’t actually understand that. On average, over the last five years, about 11,000 people have died with flu-related conditions.”
With flu cases having been scarce last winter as a result of social distancing, Dr Harries said this year will mark the first time the UK experiences the virus “in any real numbers” at the same time as Covid-19.
She added: “So the risks of catching both together still remain. And if you do that, then early evidence suggests that you are twice as likely to die from having two together, than just having Covid alone.
“So I think it’s an uncertain winter ahead – that’s not a prediction, it’s an uncertain feature – but we do know that flu cases have been lower in the previous year so immunity and the strain types are a little more uncertain.”
The vaccine being offered this winter is to protect against four different flu strains, Dr Harries said, adding: “We’ve got a pretty good array in our toolbox to try and hit whichever one becomes dominant but it could be more than one this year, and people’s immunity will be lower.
“So I think the real trick here is to get vaccinated – in both Covid and flu – but obviously to continue to do those good hygiene behaviours that we’ve been practising all through Covid.”
While the average flu season sees around 11,000 deaths a year, modelling from the Academy of Medical Sciences has suggested that the lack of immunity due to its suppression over the past year could see between 15,000 and 60,000 fatalities from the virus this year, with a senior government health official warning the upper end of that estimate was a “realistic” possibility.
Asked whether it had been decided in society that 120 deaths from coronavirus per day – close to the current average level – is “an acceptable death rate”, Dr Harries cited the vast vaccination and testing programmes as she told the BBC: “This isn’t how we normally treat an endemic disease, so I think the answer to that is, very clearly – no, we are taking it extremely seriously.”
Citing typical levels of annual flu deaths, she added: “We are starting to move to a situation where perhaps Covid is not the most significant element, and many of those individuals affected will of course have other co-morbidities, which will make them vulnerable to serious illness for other reasons as well.”
Dr Harries hailed the “extremely good vaccine uptake” as now preventing “very significant amounts of hospitalisation and death”, but added that this is now “one of the most difficult times to predict what will come” with coronavirus.
“We have different levels of vaccination, we have a little bit of immunity waning in older individuals, which is why we’re now starting to put in a Covid booster vaccine,” she said. “We have slightly different effectiveness in different vaccinations that have been provided.”
Additional reporting by PA