Pharmacy teams should expect a resurgence of flu cases alongside another winter wave of Covid, the chief medical officer has warned.

He said that a ‘difficult winter’ lies ahead, although it may not reach the pressures felt this year. It comes as studies are underway to assess whether flu and Covid vaccinations can be co-administered later this year.

Speaking earlier this week at the final afternoon of NHS Confederation’s annual conference, Professor Chris Whitty said that after the current wave, he is expecting a further ‘surge’ of Covid in late autumn/winter when respiratory viruses are ‘favoured’.

The size of this will depend on any new variants and ‘how the current wave passes through the UK’, but ‘revaccination’ should be expected for the next two to three years, he added.

He told delegates: ‘If I look five years out, I would expect us to have polyvalent vaccines which will hold the line to a very large degree against even new variants as they come in and an ability to respond with vaccination to new variants.

‘But [in] the period over the next two or three years, I think new variants may well lead to us having to revaccinate or consider at least boosting vaccination as they come through. Covid has not thrown its last surprise at us and there will be several more over the next period.’

Professor Whitty also warned healthcare staff to prepare for a tough winter, with either a return of flu alongside Covid or Covid cases so bad that social distancing remains necessary.

He said: ‘We had a minimal flu winter last winter – we had very little RSV in children [and] we had relatively low adenovirus – [but] we will get all of those back this coming winter unless the Covid situation is so bad that everybody is starting to go back to essentially minimising their social contacts again.

‘So either we will have a very significant Covid surge, people will minimise their contacts and we will have less respiratory viruses, or people will be back to more normal life, there will be some Covid but on top of that we’ll go back to having a flu surge.’

He added: ‘The coming winter may well be quite a difficult one – probably not on the scale of the last one, that would be very surprising as the scale of the last winter was really the worst any of us can remember – but still quite a significant one.

‘I think we as the NHS need to brace ourselves for that, and that’s of course on the back of everyone having to work incredibly hard to do the catch up that we’re seeing coming through the front door at the moment.’

In February, Public Health England (PHE) revealed that no flu cases had been detected in the last seven weeks thanks to ‘changes in our behaviour’.

The Pharmacist exclusively reported last month (May) that one of the UK’s key suppliers of flu vaccines is anticipating ‘reduced availability’ of QIVe flu vaccine to pharmacy wholesalers this winter.'

Sanofi – which supplies vaccines for under 65s and at-risk groups – said that this was due to ‘an increase in global demand’, following recent cohort announcements for the 2021/22 season.

NHS England confirmed earlier this year that people aged 50 to 64 are expected to be eligible for a free vaccination again next season, having been included for the first time in 2020.

Figures from the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) show community pharmacies alone vaccinated 2,617,628 during the 2020/21 programme, more than one million more than the sector achieved over the entire flu season last year.

Community pharmacies also exceeded the 2019 flu vaccine record in just two months of the 2020 service starting, vaccinating more than 1.7 million patients by November.

A version of this story first appeared on out sister title, Pulse.