Winter viruses alongside Covid: A spike in flu and other respiratory viruses could put pressure on people’s health and the NHS this winter, warns a report by leading health professionals.
Testing for influenza, Covid and a respiratory virus common in children and the elderly called RSV, could help doctors treat illnesses more quickly, they said.
The Academy of Medical Sciences report urges people with any symptoms to isolate themselves and stay home.
This will help protect against all respiratory viruses this winter.
The report, prepared by 29 leading experts at the request of the government, says there is great uncertainty about what lies ahead for Britain in the next few months, but it urges policymakers to prepare for a challenging winter.
The return of winter viruses
During last winter’s lockdown, the U.K. population had little or no exposure to the viruses that normally circulate. But now, as restrictions are lifted and society opens up, they may return.
Already this summer, there has been an increase in winter viruses in children admitted to emergency departments.
Report author Professor Azra Ghani of Imperial College London says their modeling suggests a summer peak in Covid-19 infections “followed by localized outbreaks in winter.”
But “we can’t completely rule out another winter wave,” she said.
“While we expect the mortality peak to be much lower than last winter, under some scenarios we could see an increase in hospitalizations to similar levels.”
In a worst-case scenario, that could mean a twofold increase in influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases over the normal fall and winter, the report said.
Between 10,000 and 30,000 people die of influenza in a typical winter, and about 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized each year with RSV, which can cause a lung infection called bronchiolitis.
The authors say these viruses often cause similar symptoms, so testing for all three viruses at once will help distinguish them from each other.
This can be done with a Test and Trace system or in a general practitioner’s practice, but the results should be very quick so that antiviral drugs can be used to treat influenza in the most vulnerable.
Dr. Alexander Edwards of the University of Reading said “triple tests” have “great appeal,” but logistics could be an issue.
“Whether there will be enough tools and testing capacity for this to be widely available in primary care remains to be seen,” he said.
The report also recommends using Covid booster vaccines along with flu vaccines this fall to reduce the spread of the virus, which is already planned by the NHS for people over 50, and to improve infection control in hospitals.
Advice to stay home
The document says all adults should be vaccinated against Covid by September. Currently, two-thirds of U.K. adults have received two doses of the vaccine, and 87 percent have received one dose.
But the number one way to reduce transmission is to test when symptoms appear and stay home when sick, said Professor Dame Ann Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
“We urge the government to urgently increase financial and practical support that will allow all people, regardless of their circumstances, to self-isolate if necessary,” she said.
Medics also stress the importance of face closure, social distance and meeting with friends outdoors — to protect against Covid and other respiratory viruses as society becomes more open.