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NHS boss puts service on high alert in case of heavy winter flu burden


Simon Stevens says major winter outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand suggests the NHS could struggle to cope with cases, there are also concerns about how effective the NHS’s annual flu jabs will be against the H3 strain of the virus.

Britain could face a significant increase in flu cases this winter, which would make it hard for hospitals, GP surgeries and care homes to cope, the chief executive of NHS England said on Tuesday. The southern hemisphere has just experienced its worst flu season in many years, and previous experience suggests Britain may be hit by the same H3 strain this winter.

The World Health Organisation is now reviewing the efficacy of the flu vaccine used in Australia and New Zealand to prepare for the last winter, Stevens said. The NHS’s own annual campaign is due to start within weeks, using a vaccine ordered months ago. Questions may now be raised about whether it will prove effective if the same H3 strain arrives in Britain.

Putting the NHS on high alert, Stevens told bosses to do everything they could to ensure that the health service is was as well-prepared as possible to deal with a potential spike in people falling ill, including reducing hospital overcrowding so that flu victims can be admitted.

“The evidence is we are likely to have a more pressurised flu season this year,” he said.

NHS England has already committed to freeing up between 2,000 and 3,000 extra beds to help avoid a repeat of last year’s struggles, which led the British Red Cross to describe the chaotic state of hospitals as a humanitarian crisis, by clearing out “delayed discharge” patients who are medically fit to go home but cannot safely be discharged, often because a social care package has not been put in place for them.

Australia has already had more than 70,000 cases of flu this winter, and the figure may still surpass the 100,000 recorded in 2015, its worst year ever. There have been 2.5 times more flu diagnoses this year than in 2016 and the outbreak started earlier than usual.

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