The NHS may not be prepared for the “heavy season” of flu predicted for the upcoming months and calls for as many people as possible to get vaccinated.
The high levels of flu during winter in Australia and New Zealand, which are now entering Spring, are being heeded as a warning for the UK.
Both countries’ hospitals were underprepared and struggled under the weight of patients.
Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS, said: “We are reviewing the Australia and New Zealand experience, where hospitals have closed to new patients and reported very long waiting times.”
Australia saw double the number of cases of flu from last year, and twice the number of people hospitalised.
If Britain experiences a similar pandemic, it will be its first since 2009.
Since then there have been increasing long NHS waiting times due to a shortage of GPs, which reached record levels last winter.
Hospital beds are also predicted to be extremely overstretched.
Cuts to social care budgets in recent years have meant a fall in provisions that look after people outside of hospitals, causing an influx of patients and record levels of bed blocking.
The situation is forecasted to be made worse still by Britain’s aging population, with one million more people over the age of 65 than there were five years ago, a group who are extra vulnerable to contracting flu.
The main threat is expected to be H3 influenza, the same strain that hit the Southern Hemisphere, and there are calls for as many people as possible to be vaccinated. Those over the age of 65, small children, pregnant women, NHS frontline staff and anyone else particularly susceptible are all eligible for a free flu vaccine.
However, there is a worry amongst scientists that the jab will be insufficient protection, describing a ‘virological drift’ where the virus can evolve to a state that is unaffected by the vaccine.
It is too early to tell if the seriousness of the outbreak in Australia was due to an inefficient vaccine. It is currently under review by the World Health Organisation.
In Britain in 2015, when the strain of influenza had unexpectedly mutated, the vaccine only protected one in three adults as opposed to the expected 50% in what was described as a ‘jab blunder’.
The NHS also needs to prepare for the possibility of doctors and nurses taking time off work because they themselves have contracted flu, further reducing the levels of care available.
NHS head Stevens said that the “pressures are going to be real”.
Speaking at a health conference in Manchester earlier this month, he said: “We know that there is a great deal of work to be done over the next six to eight weeks with our partners in local authorities to put the NHS on the right footing for the winter ahead.”
Jim Mackey, chief executive of NHS Improvement, also warned that the service was not prepared for the challenge ahead.
He said: “We need to get serious about the bed situation. Our hospitals are very busy already. Last winter we ended up opening over 4,500 beds at the busiest times, mostly in an unplanned and unproductive manner.
“Making those decisions late in the day is bad for patients, hospitals and it costs the NHS more in the long run.”
An early move to help combat a serious outbreak is the vaccine, which significantly reduces the risk of flu and contains dead virus cells which do not make you unwell. However, there is still a chance you will not be fully protected.
Those looking to get vaccinated can do so at their GP clinic or their local pharmacy if they offer the service.
The recommended time to get the jab is from the beginning of October to early November, so most practises offer the service from the 2nd of this month.