The UK must ensure Covid and flu are not allowed to run rampant simultaneously this winter, a top health official has warned.
Dr Jenny Harries said the country is facing an ‘uncertain’ period with coronavirus still in circulation and influenza expected to be resurgent amid more social mixing.
The chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, which replaced Public Health England at the beginning of the month, warned a flu pandemic could be ‘multi-strain’.
Health officials across the northern hemisphere are worried about a bad flu season because natural immunity is lower after last year’s lockdown prevented significant outbreaks.
Dr Harries said it is also difficult to predict what is to come with Covid-19, as immunity from vaccines wanes in some older people.
Asked how worried the public should be about flu this winter, she told Sky’s Trevor Phillips On Sunday: ‘We should be worried about flu each winter. I think people still don’t realise it can be a fatal disease.
‘Recent studies suggest that about 25% of us don’t actually understand that.
‘On average, over the last five years, about 11,000 people have died with flu-related conditions.’
This year will be the first time flu ‘in any real numbers’ and Covid will be around at the same time, she said.
She added: ‘So the risks of catching both together still remain. And if you do that, then early evidence suggests that you are twice as likely to die from having two together, than just having Covid alone.
‘So I think it’s an uncertain winter ahead – that’s not a prediction, it’s an uncertain feature – but we do know that flu cases have been lower in the previous year so immunity and the strain types are a little more uncertain.’
Dr Harries also denied there is a view among health officials that 120 deaths a day from Covid is ‘acceptable’.
The average number of daily Covid-related deaths has been at over 100 since August 20 but has come down gradually in recent weeks.
She said officials are still ‘taking [the virus] extremely seriously’ despite persistently high mortality rates.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Dr Harries said: ‘We are starting to move to a situation where, perhaps Covid is not the most significant element and many of those individuals affected will of course have other comorbidities which will make them vulnerable to serious illness for other reasons as well.’
She added the ‘extremely good vaccine uptake’ is now preventing ‘very significant amounts of hospitalisation and death’, but said that this is now ‘one of the most difficult times to predict what will come’ with coronavirus.
Dr Harries also said the dominance of the Delta variant was pushing other variants to ‘become extinct’ but added we still need to ‘stay alert’ because it is ‘still very early days of a new virus’.
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