A surge in flu and other respiratory viruses could test the health of citizens and the NHS this winter, leading health experts to warn in a report.
They say tests for flu, Covid, and a respiratory virus common in children and the elderly – known as RSV – could help doctors treat cases more quickly.
The Academy of Medicine report calls for people with any symptoms to isolate themselves and stay home.
Here is how to protect yourself from any respiratory viruses this winter.
The report, written by 29 leading experts and commissioned by the government, says there is a lot of uncertainty in the UK for the coming months but urges policymakers to prepare for a difficult winter.
Winter bug reappears
During last year’s winter shutdown, the UK population was barely exposed to the viruses that normally circulate. However, with restrictions lifted and society opening up, they are now set to make a comeback.
The number of winter viruses in children coming to A&E this summer has already risen.
The report’s author, Professor Azra Ghani of Imperial College London, said her modeling suggests that summer is the period with the highest number of Covid 19 infections, “followed by localized outbreaks in winter”.
However, “we can’t completely rule out another winter surge,” he said.
“While we expect the peak in deaths to be much lower than last winter, in some cases we may see an increase in admissions to similar levels.
In a worst-case scenario, this could mean that influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) levels are about twice as high as in normal autumn and winter, the report said.
In a normal winter, between 10,000 and 30,000 people die from influenza and about 20,000 children under five are hospitalized each year for the respiratory syncytial virus, which causes a lung infection called bronchiolitis.
The authors say that these viruses often cause similar symptoms, so testing for all three at once helps to distinguish between them.
This can be done through screening and screening tests or in the GP’s office, but the response needs to be very rapid so that antiviral drugs can be used to treat flu in those most at risk.
Dr. Alexander Edwards of the University of Reading said the “triple test” had “great appeal” but the logistics could be a challenge.
“It remains to be seen whether there will be sufficient instruments and testing capacity to make it widely available for use in primary care,” he said.
The report also recommends that the Covid booster vaccine be given alongside the flu vaccine this autumn to reduce the spread of the virus, which the NHS already plans to give to the over-50s, and to improve infection control in hospitals.
Advice to stay at home
It says all adults should be vaccinated with the Covid vaccine by September. Two-thirds of adults in the UK have already received two doses of the vaccine and 87% have received one dose.
Professor Anne Johnson, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said the most important way to reduce transmission is for people to get tested if they have symptoms and stay at home if they are ill.
“We urge the government to urgently increase financial and practical support so that all people can isolate themselves if they need to, regardless of their condition,” she said.
Health workers also stressed the importance of covering your face, staying away from company and meeting friends outdoors – to protect yourself from Covidien as well as other respiratory viruses.