‘Perfect storm’ of Covid cases and early flu wave could make clearing NHS backlog ‘very difficult’

·3 min read
NHS backlog
NHS backlog

Rising Covid cases threaten the NHS’s pledge to clear the record-breaking NHS backlog, experts have warned.

The UKHSA said on Sunday that Covid hospitalisations are “quite likely” to exceed the spring peak, likely leading to a 2022 record.

Official data shows there are currently 11 hospitalisations per 100,000 people, up more than a third from the week before. The BA.2 peak was around 20 per 100,000 at the end of March.

Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “It doesn't look as though the wave has finished yet, so we would anticipate that hospital cases will rise and it is possible, quite likely, that they will peak over the previous BA.2 wave.”

But Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at Norwich Medical School, told The Telegraph  that while Covid is “undoubtedly putting more pressure on the health service”, he is more worried about an early flu wave, which the UKHSA predicted this week.

“I fear that influenza, if it does come back this year, and I think the signs are that it will, will kill a lot more people than Covid has killed over the last season,” he said.

“Since January 1st, we've had in England just over 18,000 deaths with Covid on the death certificate.

“[Flu] could quite easily, over the course of three or four months, top 20,000 deaths. If we've got two waves [with Covid and flu], it would be a perfect storm, potentially.”

‘An important challenge’

Prof Azeem Majeed, chairman of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, told The Telegraph that this double-whammy could threaten the NHS’s plan to tackle its gargantuan backlog.

Last month, the NHS vowed to eliminate two-year waits for hospital treatment. The pandemic has seen the waiting list for treatment balloon from 4.2 million to 6.4 million people.

“Any increase in Covid-19 puts more strain on the NHS through people presenting in primary care, urgent care, and as hospital inpatients,” he said.

“I agree that flu could be an important challenge. This winter, a combination of lower flu immunity and increased social interaction could drive flu rates up.

“This would also put added pressure on the NHS, particularly if there was another large wave of Covid-19 in the winter.

“This will make it very difficult for the NHS to start to clear NHS waiting lists if it is also dealing with a high number of urgent flu and Covid-19 cases.”

Both Professor Majeed and Professor Hunter believe vaccination for Covid and flu is absolutely key. Despite the UKHSA warning of a flu season starting in September, there are no plans at the minute to start the annual vaccination programme earlier than normal.

Covid boosters are to begin on September 1, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended that over-65s, adult care home residents, frontline health workers and vulnerable patients should receive a fourth jab.

“Autumn-winter vaccination programmes for flu and Covid-19 essential in limiting the impact of the two diseases on people’s health and the NHS,” Prof Majeed said.

Prof Hunter added: “We need to really get on with the flu jabs, sooner rather than later. It’s going to be a pretty dreadful winter and I think we need to be looking at how we can roll out the flu vaccine sooner.

“I think we do need to still roll out the booster Covid vaccines, certainly for the over-65s, but maybe for the over-50s as well.

“There's nothing against having both shots at the same time. You can have your flu shot in one arm and the Covid shot in another. You could probably have it in the same arm.”