Dr Vanessa Saliba
Head of Flu, Public Health England (PHE)
It is dangerous to dismiss influenza as just the flu. It can be extremely serious and can lead to hospitalisation, permanent disability or even death.
Flu kills 11,000 people in England in an average year and hospitalises thousands more. This year has been anything but typical and this winter, we expect flu and COVID-19 to circulate at the same time.
Public Health England research suggests that people co-infected with flu and COVID-19 are at greater risk of severe illness and more than twice as likely to die than those with COVID-19 alone.
To help protect the nation from this double threat, an additional five million people are being offered a free flu vaccine this year. In total, 30 million people are eligible – the highest number ever.
The flu vaccination programme aims to protect the most vulnerable. This is achieved directly through individual immunisation and indirectly by interrupting transmission in the community.
Eligible groups include those aged 65 years and over, pregnant women, people with certain long-term health conditions, two- and three-year-olds and primary school children. This year, household contacts of those on the NHS shielded patient list, children in year 7 and 50- to 64-year-olds are also eligible.
Frontline health and social care workers should also have the vaccine to protect themselves – as they are at higher risk of catching the flu – and the people they care for.
Vaccination also reduces hospitalisations due to flu, easing pressure on the NHS and social care during their busiest season and when they will also be dealing with cases of COVID-19.
This year’s unprecedented vaccine drive is being delivered in the middle of a global pandemic, which presents operational challenges. The NHS has responded by expanding and adapting services to make them COVID-19 secure, such as organising drive-through clinics and putting in place safety measures like social distancing.
England has some of the best flu vaccine uptake rates in Europe and provisional data suggests uptake will be the highest ever this season.
The impact of flu varies considerably from year to year and it is not possible to predict what will happen in the coming season.
However, the vaccine is the best defence we have, and it is more important now than ever. We urge anyone who is eligible to take up the offer to help protect themselves, their families and the NHS – it will help save lives.