A lethal triple mix of COVID-19, influenza, and the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), could push an already depleted NHS to breaking point this winter according to a new report released today.
The Academy of Medical Sciences brought together 29 leading experts alongside 57 members of the public at the request of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser to forecast the greatest risks to health this winter.
Mariachiara Di Cesare, a Professor of Population Studies and Global Health at Middlesex University, supported the work of the panel.
“Despite a highly successful COVID-19 vaccine campaign, the pandemic is not over yet. The message from our report is clear – COVID-19 is still with us and remains a threat to our health both directly and indirectly. All parts of society need to take action to head off the serious health risks we are facing now, and in the future.” Professor Sir Stephen Holgate FMedSci, Chair of the Expert Advisory Group.
Their report warns:
* A potential surge in respiratory viruses could cause widespread ill health and put pressure on the NHS. New modelling carried out for the report suggests this winter influenza and RSV hospital admissions and deaths could be two times that of a ‘normal’ year and could coincide with an increase of COVID-19 infections, and their associated long-term consequences.
* Dealing with the current third wave of COVID-19, as well as multiple subsequent outbreaks, between summer 2021 and spring 2022, meaning the NHS cannot catch up with the backlog of routine care.
* The NHS is already under pressure, and so is likely to be less able to cope with extra winter health challenges. Before the pandemic, winter bed occupancy in the NHS regularly exceeded 95%. This year the NHS will also be operating with a reduced number of beds because of infection control measures. The report also highlights that the NHS is reporting a shortage of nearly 84,000 staff, and a shortage of 2,500 GPs. Staff fatigue and burnout will also be a challenge.
* Worse physical and mental health in the UK population – including that due to delayed diagnosis and treatment and other impacts of the pandemic – could lead to even higher rates of conditions such as asthma, COPD, heart attack and stroke this winter.
The report urges policy makers and the NHS to prepare now for a challenging winter, and is calling for:
* Expanding COVID-19 testing to include influenza and RSV. Fast test results would allow doctors to distinguish quickly between illnesses, treat where appropriate with antivirals against flu, and spot trends.
* Increasing the speed and uptake of COVID-19 vaccination now, alongside preparations for delivering booster vaccines if needed, alongside flu vaccines for everyone eligible in the autumn.
* Financial - and other - support to be strengthened urgently to make it easier for ALL people to self-isolate when they are infected with COVID-19, to reduce the spread of the virus.
* Super charging the NHS by bringing in new staff, increasing bed numbers and capacity in primary care, improving infection control, ensuring equitable access to long COVID clinics, improving access to mental health services, reducing the backlog of routine care and increasing testing capacity for flu and COVID-19.
* Government to give clearer and more accessible guidelines about the precautions the public can take to protect themselves and those around them from COVID-19, such as wearing face coverings in crowded indoor spaces, physical distancing and minimising transmission when infected.
* Greater involvement of patients, carers and the public in planning for, and developing communications about, future health risks.
Prof Di Cesare said: “The key messages of the report are clear, we must sustain our efforts to limit the transmission and impacts of the virus maximising the speed and uptake of COVID-19, and later in the year influenza, vaccination.
“We must support self-isolation, both financially and non-financially; boost capacity in the NHS to respond to future COVID-19 outbreaks and other infectious diseases while reducing the backlog and resume normal non-COVID-19 care.
“It is vital clear guidance about environmental and behavioural precautions is made available.
“This is a clear call in a critical moment of resurgence of cases and increase in the COVID-19 pressure on the health system and just few days ahead of the government decision of easing COVID-19 restrictions.”