Rates of GP consultations for flu continued to rise last week with the entire UK now affected by several influenza strains.
Public Health England’s weekly flu update, for the period up to 31 December, also revealed a sharp rise in hospitalisations for the dreaded ‘Aussie flu’ H3N2 strain.
GP consultations for flu-like illness rose from 18 per 100,000 in England to 21, with levels now above seasonally expected levels in all nations of the UK (against an expected baseline for this season of 13.1 per 100,000).
The notice further reported an increase in NHS 111 calls relating to cold/flu during the period.
It said: ‘GP in-hours consultations for influenza like illness (ILI) increased and are above seasonally expected levels and the highest rates were in the 15+ years age groups in week 52.
‘There were also further increases in influenza-like illness indicators in emergency department attendances and NHS 111 cold/flu calls.’
PHE said the data should be treated with caution because GP practices were only open three days during the week, but hospital statistics further revealed that:
- There were 114 new admissions to ICU/HDU with confirmed influenza at 19 trusts in week 52, compared with 61 across 12 trusts the previous week. Of these, 17 were confirmed as the ‘Aussie’ H3N2 strain, compared with nine the previous week.
- There were 421 hospitalised confirmed influenza cases in week 52, compared with 66 in week 51. Of these, 112 were confirmed as the H3N2 strain, compared with five in the week before.
- Flu hospitalisations were at a rate of 6.82 per 100,000 compared to 2.33 per 100,000 in the previous week, and above the baseline threshold of 0.56 per 100,000 for the 2017/18 season.
- PHE said both influenza A and B are circulating.
As Pulse reported yesterday, the high demand on GP and urgent care has seen GPs cancel leave, work longer hours and being discouraged from transferring patients to emergency services.
PHE medical director Professor Paul Cosford said: ‘As we would expect at this time of year, flu levels have increased this week. Our data shows that more people are visiting GPs with flu symptoms and we are seeing more people admitted to hospitals with the flu.
‘The vaccine is the best defence we have against the spread of flu and it isn’t too late to get vaccinated.’
Rob Lambkin-Williams, executive scientific advisor at the hVIVO Group, said: ‘It is a big rise in cases. In Australia it is the worst flu season they have had since 2009 and that may be what we are going to get now. We are already well above what is expected. I think it is likely to get worse.
‘A lot of people have mixed just after Christmas and it is a classic time of year to get a spike. Kids go home and spend time with grandparents – that is one of the reasons we are vaccinating children now, to try and break that chain of infection.’
Statistics from Health Protection Scotland showed around 46 per 100,000 people were suffering from influenza this week, compared to 22 per 100,000 in the same week in 2016. It added that early testing showed ‘just over half’ of the circulating strains of flu match those in the 2017/18 vaccine.
Around half of Scottish health boards are reporting ‘significant’ ward pressure as a result of flu, the Scottish Government added.
It comes as NHS England’s latest report on emergency services, also published today, showed that between 25 and 31 December:
- 16,893 patients were left waiting longer than 30 minutes in ambulances outside A&E departments
- Hospital trusts reported bed occupancy levels of 91.7% – up from 90.9% the previous week
- Last week, ambulances were diverted on 39 separate occasions.
- So far this winter, there have been over 75,000 ambulance handover delays over 30 minutes in England, according to a data analysis carried out by the Labour Party.
Labour’s shadow health minister Jonathan Ashworth said the Government ‘should be deeply ashamed of’ the data, adding: ‘These figures reveal the shocking scale of the crisis in our NHS this winter.’
‘Labour and clinicians have warned ministers for months to prepare for this winter, but concerns were casually dismissed out of hand. Theresa May’s boast that the NHS is the best prepared it’s ever been has now been entirely discredited,’ he added.
Also commenting on today’s new winter statistics, which come after NHS England extended delays on non-urgent operations and appointments until the end of the month, BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said they were ‘further evidence’ that pressure on the already ‘overstretched’ NHS ‘continues to intensify’.
He said: ‘We urgently need more long-term planning to ensure the NHS can meet rising demand on services and has the capacity to deal with the inevitable spike in demand each winter.
Funding is a critical part of this, given that the NHS receives about £10bn less annually compared to other leading EU countries.
‘This is why we are calling on the Government to plug this funding deficit, with investment that would deliver the extra beds, staff and services which are badly needed.’