Early UK flu wave threatens to coincide with rising Covid and monkeypox cases

·3 min read
UK flu wave - David Cheskin/PA
UK flu wave - David Cheskin/PA

Britain will be hit by an unusually early flu wave that could begin as soon as September, a health boss has warned.

It has sparked fears that the wave will collide with increasing numbers of Covid and monkeypox cases this autumn.

Britain has not experienced a proper flu season since the Covid pandemic struck in 2020, leaving experts worried about a lack of population immunity and the potential for a bad winter.

Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told a webinar hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine that health authorities were preparing for this eventuality.

Australia, currently going through its winter, is having its worst flu season in five years, Dr Hopkins said, adding: “We are planning for an influenza wave. I don’t know if people are following Australia, but we are watching very, very carefully.

“They have had their worst influenza season for more than five years. It started earlier and it rose very, very fast in all age groups, so we are expecting that we will see an early influenza wave.

“While we normally don’t see influenza really kick off until the end of November to December, that might happen as early as late September-October – that’s what we’re planning for.”

Dr Hopkins warned that monkeypox and Covid would also be on the rise, adding: “Our current planning assumptions are that we will see at least one [Covid] wave in the autumn-winter period.”

Covid cases and hospitalisations are currently increasing as a new omicron sub-variant, BA.5, exploits waning population immunity. The Zoe symptom tracker app said cases were up 27 per cent in a week and set to continue ticking upwards.

Dr Hopkins said that “for the next six months” people would need to assume that there would be ongoing community transmission of monkeypox. There are now between 20 and 40 new cases every day.

Cases have recently exceeded 1,000, official data show, and are spreading predominantly in gay and bisexual men.

London is at the epicentre of the outbreak, with 659 confirmed infected individuals, with the majority of patients gay and bisexual men between the age of 31 and 43.

Only five women have been diagnosed with the virus, which produces sore and virus-laden lesions. At least one child has tested positive, and there have so far been no deaths.

The three diseases are all following their own trajectories, but experts are fearful they will overlap in the coming months. “I think this year will be even more challenging than normal,” Dr Hopkins said.

However, she concluded her talk by saying that 2023 “will look like a different world” if the NHS can get through the rest of 2022 relatively unscathed.

It comes as the Office for National Statistics announced that its gold-standard Covid infection survey is being pared back after more than two years.

Scientists have warned that the change to the survey’s methodology puts the validity of its results at risk. Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it was “disappointing” and a “mistake” and could leave experts “blind” to the prevalence of Covid heading into winter.