The UK faces an uncertain winter amid the spread of both coronavirus and flu and all those eligible for jabs should take up the offer to protect themselves, a health chief has said.
UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries 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 an average winter.
She said it is difficult to predict what will come with Covid-19 as immunity from vaccines wanes in some older people, but struck an optimistic tone by adding that she believes a winter lockdown is “highly unlikely”.
She told Times Radio: “I think it’s looking positive, but I would never say 100%.”
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% of us don’t actually understand that. On average, over the last five years, about 11,000 people have died with flu-related conditions.”
This year will be the first time flu “in any real numbers” and Covid will be around at the same time, she said.
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.”
A study by Public Health England (PHE) showed that during the first peak of the pandemic, people who were infected with both coronavirus and flu had a significantly higher risk of death.
The research, published in September last year, saw data analysed in almost 20,000 people who were tested for both viruses between January 20 and April 25 2020.
Fifty-eight were identified as having “co-infection” of the two viruses and overall, 43% of people with co-infection died compared to 27% of those who tested positive for Covid-19 alone.
Explaining that this year’s flu could be made up of different strains, Dr Harries said the vaccine being offered this winter season is to protect against four of those.
She said: “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.”
The average flu season sees around 11,000 deaths a year in England.
Dr Harries insisted it is not the case that 120 deaths a day is seen as an “acceptable death rate” for Covid, and said officials are still “taking it extremely seriously”.
She told The Andrew Marr show: “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 comorbidities which will make them vulnerable to serious illness for other reasons as well.”
She said the “extremely good vaccine uptake” is 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.
She said: “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.
“We have slightly different effectiveness in different vaccinations that have been provided.”
On a positive note, she said it appears the global dominance of the Delta variant has seen other coronavirus variants “become extinct”, but she added that we still need to “stay alert” because it is “still very early days of a new virus”.
On schools, Dr Harries said a surge in cases had been expected, and that the important thing is good testing to ensure children are not in class while infectious.
She said pupils wearing masks would not be at the top of her list of Covid-safe measures.
Her comments come after education unions urged the Government to consider reintroducing extra safety measures against coronavirus in schools.
A Department for Education spokesperson said the protective measures in schools “strike a balance between managing transmission risk” and reducing disruption to education.