Flu has hospitalised nearly 60 times more people this year than last winter, official figures show as the NHS continues to be battered by the virus.
NHS England data show an average of 1,939 people with flu were in hospital each day last week.
It was up 67 per cent on the 1,162 recorded the previous week and 57 times higher than the 34 recorded at the same point in 2021.
The figure was also a sharp increase on the daily average of 482 at the end of November.
Flu has hospitalised nearly 60 times more people this year than last winter in England, official figures show as the NHS continue to be battered by the virus
Experts described the rise as having ‘skyrocketed’.
There has also been a surge in the number of flu patients in critical care beds in England, with the daily average standing at 149 last week, up 72 per cent from 87 the previous week.
At the equivalent point last year the NHS had only two flu patients a day in critical care and 32 in general beds.
The rate of flu admissions currently stands at 8.3 per 100,000 people, up week-on-week from 6.8 per 100,000 and a level not seen since the 2017-18 season.
Flu admissions continue to be highest among over-85s, at 42.0 per 100,000 people, and children aged four and under, at 19.4 per 100,000, according to the latest data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
All children aged two and three are eligible for a flu nasal spray vaccine which is being offered by local GPs.
But only 38.8 per cent of two-year-olds have received the vaccine so far, along with 40.9 per cent of three-year-olds, well below the take-up reached at this point in previous winters.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive at NHS Providers, said: ‘Trust leaders are expecting this Christmas to be one of their darkest to date. As they work hard to mitigate the impact of ongoing strike action, they are also having to contend with an incredibly long list of other serious challenges.
‘After very few flu cases in the last two years, in part due to social distancing during the pandemic, this flu season is looking far more severe compared to recent years before the pandemic.
‘The surge in flu has impacted bed occupancy, which continues to be above levels considered safe.
‘More patients are also staying longer in hospital due to greater severity of illness and delayed discharges, which remain a real concern and puts a massive strain on the entire health and care system, including community care and social services.’
Christmas could be one of the darkest to date for the health service, trust leaders have predicted as they warned strikes threaten to aggravate an ‘already deeply challenging situation’ in the NHS.
Health chiefs are working to mitigate the impact of industrial action alongside having to contend with an ‘incredibly long list of other serious challenges’, NHS Providers said.
Figures for last week show that one in four ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed to A&E teams at hospitals, while new data suggests patients in hospital with flu in England has ‘skyrocketed’ and Strep A is driving ‘near record’ demand for NHS 111 services.
Nurses staged walkouts on December 15 and Tuesday, while ambulance workers in England and Wales followed suit on Wednesday and another strike is planned for December 28.
Handover delays were high across the whole of last week, with no clear evidence that industrial action taken by nurses on their first strike day had a specific impact.
Unions have long argued they are striking not just over pay but due to the state of the healthcare system, which they claim has been chronically underfunded and is short-staffed, leading to concerns for patient safety.
The Unite union announced on Friday afternoon that its members in the Welsh Ambulance Service had voted to strike, with 1,000 workers set to take action on dates to be announced in the new year.
The majority of ambulance trusts in England declared critical incidents this week – meaning they were on their highest level of alert where they feared they could not provide usual critical services.
NHS Providers, the membership organisation for the NHS hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services, has reiterated its call for urgent discussions between the unions and Government about pay in order to avert further strike action.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the UKHSA, said that as well as those eligible getting vaccinated, to stop infections spreading people should try to stay at home if they feel unwell and wear face coverings in enclosed spaces.
She added: ‘Hospitalisations have increased dramatically in those aged 75 and over in the past week, with admissions among children under five remaining high.
‘ICU admissions have also increased this week.
‘NHS services are already under pressure so it’s more important than ever to get protected with the flu vaccine and help keep yourself out of hospital.’
Separate data shows there were 721,301 calls to NHS 111 services last week, up from 706,129 the week before.
NHS England said this was ‘near-record’ level demand and ‘significantly’ more than usual for this time of year, up almost 60 per cent from the 452,644 calls in the equivalent week in 2021.
This rise in demand is understood to be partly driven by parents concerned about symptoms of Strep A.
NHS England national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis urged those eligible to get their flu and Covid jabs.
He said: ‘As well as the impact of industrial action last week, it is clear that the NHS is facing enormous pressure ahead of Christmas with the number of flu cases in hospital and in intensive care rising week-on-week, on top of significant increases in staff sickness rates and near-record demand for services like 111.
‘Despite this, NHS staff continue to deliver a significant amount for patients – dealing with near record 111 calls as well as continuing to make progress on Covid-19 backlogs.
‘With more industrial action scheduled for next week, there will be disruption but we urge the public to continue to use services wisely by continuing to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies, use 111 online for other health conditions, and take sensible steps to keep yourself and others safe.
‘The NHS has prepared for winter extensively with more beds, extra call handlers as well as the expansion of falls response services, control centres and respiratory hubs, but with flu hospitalisations and Covid cases on the rise, the best things you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible.’
For the first time since the pandemic began people are being admitted to hospital with influenza at a higher rate than with Covid, although both of these are rising.
According to NHS data the rate of flu admissions stood at 6.8 per 100,000 people in the week to December 11 – nearly doubling from 3.9 per 100,000 the week before – while for the same week there was 6.6 per 100,000 for Covid.
There have been suggestions that if the trend continues the UK could see its worst flu outbreak since the winter of 2017/18, which killed 30,000 people.
Strep A bacteria can cause a range of other infections, including impetigo, scarlet fever and strep throat
While the vast majority of infections are relatively mild, in exceptionally rare cases the bacteria can cause invasive Group A Streptococcal (iGAS)
The health service is facing attacks from all sides currently, as medics struggle from the pressure of viruses, striking staff and the spread of Strep A.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data shows 21 kids in England have died from the usually-mild bacterial infection so far this year.
Two children in Wales and one in Northern Ireland have also lost their lives, taking the UK’s death toll so far this winter to 24.
Victims include Muhammad Ibrahim Ali, a four-year-old boy from Buckinghamshire, and Hannah Roap, seven, from Wales.
Although low, Britain’s Strep A kid death toll is higher than expected for this time of year.
Twenty-seven under-18s died from the bug throughout the entirety of the last bad winter, in 2017/18.
Strep A bacteria can cause a range of other infections, including impetigo, scarlet fever and strep throat.
While the vast majority of infections are relatively mild, in exceptionally rare cases the bacteria can cause invasive Group A Streptococcal (iGAS).
Two of the most severe forms of this invasive disease are necrotising fasciitis and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. Both can kill.
Data suggests cases of iGAS are already up to five times higher than last winter — which was unusually quiet.
Yet levels seen already this season have surpassed every peak seen in the past six years.
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