Deaths from flu were higher this past winter than the pre-pandemic average, a report from the UK Health Security Agency has concluded.
An analysis of the 2022/23 flu season showed 14,500 excess deaths from influenza last winter compared with an average of 13,500 in the five years before the pandemic.
It is the highest figure since 2017/18 when there were 22,500 excess flu deaths, public health officials said.
Figures show the flu season started relatively early but also reached a peak quickly before the New Year.
Hospitalisations across all ages were higher than average, although some of this may be attributed to increased testing by the NHS compared to previous winters, the UKHSA report said.
Last year was the first year since the pandemic began that the country has seen widespread flu infections as measures designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 were dropped.
‘There are likely multiple reasons for the above average number of deaths and hospitalisations, but the impact will have been influenced by the dominant circulating strain,’ the report said.
Influenza A(H3N2), which was the predominant subtype in 2022/23, is known to be more severe in older age groups, experts added. But the vaccines used had been well-matched.
Recent figures showed the number of people getting the flu vaccine has declined slightly after two bumper years of uptake.
There is also evidence to suggest that lower population immunity from social distancing measures during the pandemic meant that, overall, the population was more susceptible to flu than usual.
Vaccination cut the risk of hospitalisation because of flu by a quarter in adults aged over 65, by a third in other adults and two-thirds in children, the report said.
Dr Conall Watson, lead flu epidemiologist, at UKHSA, said: ‘Flu returned at scale last winter after being locked out by Covid-19 control measures.
‘Lower population immunity following flu’s absence played a part in the season starting relatively early and led to lots of people catching flu in a short timeframe.
‘Many people needed advice from NHS 111 services and there were high numbers of severe flu episodes that required hospital care, placing pressure on the heath system.’
He added: ‘Plans for the delivery of this winter’s vaccine programme are well underway and we strongly advise all those eligible to take up the offer of vaccination this autumn.’
Next winter’s flu vaccination campaign was announced by NHS England in May with low-risk 50-64-year-olds no longer eligible.
Providers are expected to offer the jab to 100% of people within eligible groups and should aim to ‘equal or exceed’ last season’s uptake, especially in clinical risk groups, young children and pregnant women.