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Get Covid and flu vaccines before winter ‘twindemic’, health officials urge more than 30 million people

More than half the country is being urged to have flu and Covid vaccines after health officials said they were increasingly worried the UK could suffer its worst flu spike in five years this winter.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned there will be lower levels of natural immunity to flu this year after two winters when people socialised far less due to the Covid pandemic and lockdown restrictions. One expert said they were more worried about flu this year than they had been for several years.

The UKHSA has warned of a possible “difficult winter” ahead as respiratory viruses, including flu and Covid, circulate widely.

Scientists described current Covid estimates in the UK, although mixed, as “not entirely encouraging” after the Office of National Statistics published its latest report last week. Official estimates for the most recent week total about 928,000 cases across the UK – a 5 per cent rise on the previous week.

A “twindemic” of Covid and flu is expected to occur over winter possibly leading to a surge in excess deaths, especially among the elderly. International surveillance shows the UK can expect the spread of H3N2 – a subtype of influenza type A – which is currently the most commonly detected flu virus worldwide.

H3N2 has recently caused waves of infection in countries including Australia, which has just had its worst flu season in five years. The vaccine used by the UK is designed to fight this strain.

In 2017/2018, the H3N2 flu strain led to a severe UK flu season, with around 20,000 deaths and 40,000 hospital admissions. It did circulate in the UK last winter but less mixing due to Covid-19 means there is little immunity to it.

Under plans announced on Tuesday, around 33 million people in England will be eligible for a free flu vaccine this year, including all primary-age and some secondary-age children, who will be offered the nasal spray.

Around 26 million people in England are also eligible for the autumn Covid-19 booster vaccine. People who qualify for both jabs could be offered the flu and Covid shots at the same time if supply allows, though in different arms.

Who is eligible for flu and Covid boosters?

hose eligible for the flu jab are: people aged 50 and over; those aged six months to 49 with a specified health condition; secondary school-aged children focusing on Years 7, 8 and 9 with any remaining vaccine offered to Years 10 and 11; primary school-aged children; pregnant women; those in care homes, frontline health and social care staff; carers and the household contacts of people with weakened immune systems.

These people can get a jab from their GP surgery or pharmacies offering an NHS vaccine service. GPs are also inviting children aged two and three years old, as of August 31, for the nasal spray vaccine.

People who qualify for the autumn/winter Covid booster include: adults aged 50 and over; those aged five to 49 with health conditions that put them at greater risk; pregnant women; care home workers and frontline health and social care workers; carers and the household contacts of people with weakened immune systems.

All those eligible for a booster can now book online apart from people aged 50 to 64, who are not in an at-risk group, who will be able to get one later this autumn. The UKHSA said that, in addition to a predicted flu wave, there are “early indications” that Covid rates are beginning to rise ahead of winter.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at UKHSA, said: “Flu and Covid-19 are unpredictable but there are strong indications we could be facing the threat of widely circulating flu, lower levels of natural immunity due to less exposure over the last three winters and an increase in Covid-19 circulating with lots of variants that can evade the immune response. This combination poses a serious risk to our health, particularly those in high-risk groups.


Related video: Scientists Warn Flu Season Could Arrive As Early As October

“The H3N2 flu strain can cause particularly severe illness. If you are elderly or vulnerable because of other conditions you are at greater risk, so getting the flu jab is a sensible, potentially life-saving thing to do. We are extremely fortunate to have vaccines against these two diseases.

“Most eligible groups have been selected because they are at higher risk of severe illness. Younger children are unlikely to have built up any natural immunity to flu and therefore it is particularly important they take the nasal spray vaccine this year. So, if you are offered a jab, please come forward to protect yourself and help reduce the burden on our health services.”

Some 3 million people have already come forward for their autumn booster, NHS England said on Tuesday. NHS director for vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: “We are delighted to see that the public have been quick to take up the offer of extra protection ahead of winter and a likely ‘twindemic’ of Covid and flu, so it is vital that those most susceptible to serious illness from these viruses come forward for vaccines in order to protect themselves and those around them.”

England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Thomas Waite said: “Vaccines have saved many lives over the years for both flu and more recently Covid. But we must not be complacent – infections will rise once again this winter, so it’s really important people get both their Covid and flu vaccines if eligible.”

People with asthma are not routinely offered a Covid booster vaccine due to the lack of evidence they are at higher risk from the virus. However, a subset of people with asthma (such as those with very poorly controlled asthma) are offered a dose.

Officials worried low level immunity due to lack of flu over last 2 years, good uptake over-65s but only about 50 per cent of clinical risk came forward.