The number of patients seeking out their GP with flu-like symptoms rose markedly over the holiday period, Public Health England data has shown.
Flu experts said the rapid rise was ‘a major concern’, especially in light of the Southern hemisphere having experienced its worst flu season for eight years during its winter season.
In the week leading to 28 December, the weekly influenza-like illness (ILI) GP consultation rate was 18.9 per 100,000 in England, compared to 11.4 per 100,000 in the week before.
PHE said this was above the baseline threshold of 13.1 per 100,000 for the season for England, adding that levels are also above baseline in Scotland and Wales but below the line in Northern Ireland.
The bulletin added: ‘GP in-hours consultations for influenza-like illness (ILI) were increasing but remain within seasonally expected levels in week 51.
‘There were increases in respiratory indicators across all systems, including GP out-of-hours consultations, emergency department attendances and NHS 111 cold/flu calls.’
Rob Lambkin-Williams, executive scientific advisor at the hVIVO Group, said: ‘The recent report from PHE showed that cases of ILI were over 50% higher than the previous week.
‘This is a major concern as Australia experienced its worst flu season last year since the 2009 pandemic, and what happens in Australia is often of the harbinger of what may happen in the Northern hemisphere.’
He added that, contrary to what ‘many might believe’, it is not too late to vaccinate as it can give some protection ‘within seven days’.
PHE also said that in the week ending 28 December, there were 34 new respiratory outbreaks, including 26 from care homes, seven from hospitals and one in another setting.
There was also an uptick in the number of hospitalisations with confirmed influenza, at a rate of 1.55 per 100,000 compared to 1.49 per 100,000 in the previous week and above the baseline of 0.56 per 100,000 for the 2017/18 season.
BMA GP Committee clinical lead Dr Andrew Green said: ‘These reports tie in with the experiences of many GPs who have noticed increased pressure on their appointments, often with patients who are quite poorly.
‘It is important education regarding self-care continues, but we are also seeing elderly patients who have heard these messages and have perhaps delayed seeking help for longer than they should.’
It comes as a British Lung Foundation report last month warned that less than half of the patients eligible for free flu vaccinations were vaccinated ahead of last winter’s flu season.