England’s top doctor has warned that the country is in the grip of a “twindemic” as the number of patients hospitalised with flu soars alongside increased coronavirus-related admissions, according to official data.
Figures published on Friday by NHS England showed a total of 3,746 patients a day were in hospital with flu last week, up from 520 a month earlier. Of these, 267 were receiving critical care.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, 9,459 beds were occupied by patients with Covid-19, a near-twofold rise over the past month. The total number of general and acute beds open each day last week was 99,940.
Pointing to the sevenfold rise in flu admissions since the end of November, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, on Friday said “our fears of a ‘twindemic’ have been realised”.
He added that Covid-19 was also hitting NHS staff hard, with absences related to the disease up almost 50 per cent month on month.
The data will add to concerns over the severely overstretched health service’s ability to cope with a double threat, as it prepares for further industrial action in the new year.
The number of hospitalisations because of flu had risen as viruses circulated again after a hiatus during the pandemic, NHS England said. This time last year, only 34 patients with flu were sick enough to be hospitalised, and just two required critical care.
Daily Covid-related absences among NHS staff were up almost half since last month, from 5,448 to 8,029, according to the data. Overall, the total number off sick was up a fifth compared with the end of November, from 52,556 to 63,296 a day.
On average, a total of 93 per cent of beds are occupied, up from 86 per cent a year ago. Warning that the NHS remained under “significant pressure”, Powis said more than 12,000 beds were taken up by patients medically fit for discharge.
Often such delayed discharges relate to a lack of available community support. However, this figure was the lowest since August, the NHS said, as staff had sought to ensure as many patients as possible spent Christmas at home.
As the NHS braces itself for four days of strikes over pay and working conditions next month, Friday’s data also gave the first official insight into the impact of last week’s industrial action.
On December 21, when ambulance workers belonging to the Unison, GMB and Unite unions walked out, hours lost to ambulance handover delays stood at 2,517, the lowest all week.
The NHS had instructed hospitals to ensure handovers that day took no more than 15 minutes. A total of 1,053 patients waited more than an hour for an ambulance, also the lowest figure of the week.
However, there was a large drop in the number of patients brought in by ambulance on December 21 — 7,769 compared with between about 9,500 and 10,990 on other days that week — in a sign that the public heeded pleas to minimise strain on emergency services that day.
Meanwhile, wider pressures in the system were underlined by the volume of calls to the telephone advice service 111 in recent days. Almost 600,000 calls were made last week, up more than two-thirds from this time last year.
Saffron Cordery, interim head of NHS Providers, which represents health organisations across England, said the steep rise in flu admissions was “very worrying alongside so many other pressures, contributing to unacceptably high bed occupancy rates”.
Warning of the potential impact on patients of further walkouts, Cordery added that there were “no easy quick fixes, but a resolution on pay . . . would be an important step in the right direction”.