The NHS has warned that fears of a ‘twindemic’ have been realised as Covid and flu cases rise, continuing to pile pressure on overstretched healthcare services.

New data shows that there were 3,764 patients a day in hospital with flu in the last week of December, up from 520 only a month before the latest data. With hospital cases also up 80% in seven days, this has sparked concerns that the NHS is being put under extreme pressure.

In December last year there were only 34 patients in hospital with flu. Now, as flu cases rise, NHS staff are being the most affected. Covid-related absences were up by almost half on last month, from 5,448 to 8,029 per day NHS data. The total number of NHS staff off sick has been up by 20% from November.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: ‘Sadly, these latest flu numbers show our fears of a ‘twindemic’ have been realised, with cases up seven fold in just a month and the continued impact of Covid hitting staff hard.

‘As well as flu, the NHS continues to be under significant pressure, with high bed occupancy, more than 12,000 beds taken up by patients medically fit for discharge, and demand for the 111 service remaining high.’

According to Helen Bedford, professor of children’s health at UCL Great Ormond Street, and a vaccination expert, the sharp rise in cases may be, in part, due to Covid restrictions in previous years.

‘Due to lockdowns and other infection prevention measures (handwashing/masks etc) during the pandemic,’ said Professor Bedford, ‘we saw very low numbers of cases of flu and other infections during the pandemic. This means people have not been exposed to these infections for several years – now we are back to normal the infections are circulating with many people susceptible.’

Professor Bedford stressed the importance of vaccination for those eligible as flu cases rise and urged nurses to recommend the vaccine where available.

She also highlighted the importance of vaccination for children, saying: ‘It sometimes thought only elderly people are at risk – however, in 2019/20 – 55 children aged 0-4 years died from flu in England and a further 10 aged 5-14 years.’

But in December,  a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warned that almost a quarter of UK adults would be unlikely to get the winter flu vaccine if they were invited, driven by vaccine inequality.

This article first appeared on our sister publication, Nursing in Practice.