Flu deaths have doubled in the space of a week, Government figures reveal as a new map reveals the worst hit areas in the UK.
Public Health England data shows 48 people have lost their lives to the bug already this winter – compared to the 23 deaths recorded last week.
A map, used by the Government agency to track outbreaks, also breaks down which regions are being struck the worst by the killer virus.
GP surgeries have been overwhelmed with the influx of patients amid the winter flu epidemic, made worse by an aggressive strain of influenza A that rocked Australia.
Doctors are cancelling holidays and working late into the night to try to manage the demand after being told to keep patients out of hospitals as the NHS struggles.
The soaring cases, which jumped by 48 per cent over the space of a week, has been blamed for adding extra pressure onto an already stretched health service.
Bosses made the unprecedented decision to cancel 55,000 operations to cope with the crisis as the NHS begins to buckle.
Plymouth has been hit the hardest by Aussie flu, with 14 new cases in the past three weeks
PHE data also shows the killer virus has left 1,078 in hospital since October – of which a quarter have been triggered by so-called ‘Aussie flu’.
It comes as health officials have warned a flu jab that has already been dished out to thousands of patients is ineffective against a prominent strain.
The rocketing number of flu cases has been put down to a surge in two aggressive subtypes attacking the population simultaneously.
One includes the so-called ‘Aussie flu’, a strain of influenza A which wreaked havoc on hospitals in Australia during the country’s winter.
The H3N2 subtype triggered two and a half times the normal number of cases in Australia. Britain’s flu season tends to mirror what has happened there.
Experts fear the virulent flu strain, which has now reached the UK, could prove as deadly to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed one million people.
Usually, just one subtype, either influenza A or B, is responsible for the majority of cases. It spreads much easier in the cold weather.
PHE figures released earlier this week revealed 1,649 people were struck down with flu in England and Wales over the week of Christmas.
Public Health England data also shows the killer virus has left 1,078 in hospital – a quarter of which because of so-called ‘Aussie flu’
NHS PREPARES FOR THE WORST FLU OUTBREAK IN 50 YEARS
The dreaded Aussie flu outbreak that the NHS is preparing for will be the worst in 50 years, experts warned in September.
Some A&E units in Australia had ‘standing room only’ after being swamped by more than 100,000 cases of the H3N2 strain.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a public health expert at Nottingham Trent University, said it is ‘inevitable’ it will reach Britain.
He said it could claim as many lives as the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968, which killed at least one million people.
Professor Dingwall told The Daily Express in September: ‘Based on the Australian experience public health officials need to meet and urgently review emergency planning procedures.
‘Public Health England should be working with local authorities and local health services to ensure more hospital beds are freed up. We need to be prepared, alert and flexible.
‘There is no point in trying to close the borders. It’s almost inevitable this will come to us. This is potentially the worst winter since the Hong Kong flu outbreak of 1968.
‘Lots of people have been very badly affected in Australia and whilst their mortality rates are not out yet we suspect this is a more severe strain than most other years.’
Some 16,900 people had to wait over 30 minutes to be seen by A&E in the Christmas week
But last week 684 cases of influenza A and 915 of influenza B were recorded across England and Wales. Some 54 cases are yet to be identified.
THE FLU JAB DOESN’T WORK!
Health officials have admitted a flu jab that has already been dished out to thousands may be targeting the wrong strain of the virus.
Public Health England has announced the trivalent vaccine is not effective against a common type of influenza B which is currently circulating.
An analysis revealed 21 cases of influenza B have been caused by the B/Yamagata type – which isn’t covered by the cheaper jab.
The strain has been responsible for a surge in cases of flu, including the dreaded ‘Aussie flu’ across England and Wales this winter – putting extra pressure on the NHS.
In a letter to GPs, PHE suggested only adults given the quadrivalent vaccine would face protection from the emerging B strain.
GPs in the south west were told: ‘It is possible that flu will be seen among individuals, both staff and patients, who have accepted this vaccination.’
The trivalent vaccines, which protect against one strain of B and two of A, are most commonly used in NHS surgeries because they are cheaper, The Times reports.
Of the 1,078 confirmed hospital cases of flu, 252 have been caused by H3N2 – which triggered more than double the expected cases in Australia during its winter.
GP surgeries are struggling to cope with the influx of patients amid the winter ‘Aussie flu’ epidemic, with some being forced to wait three weeks for an appointment.
Doctors are cancelling holidays and working late into the night to try to manage the demand after being told to keep patients out of wards as hospitals throughout the country buckle under winter flu pressures.
Patients who manage to secure an appointment are waiting hours to be seen, with some even been asked to make their own way to hospital rather than calling for an ambulance to ease hospitals’ burdens, which has left many seriously worried for their safety.
The below map reveals the areas of the UK worst struck by Aussie flu, which is thought to be a key driver behind the NHS crisis.
Plymouth has been hit the hardest, with 14 new cases in the past three weeks, followed by Doncaster with eight new incidences, Durham with five, Dumfries and Galloway in north-west Scotland with three, and Sutton with two.
This is compared to regions including North Wales, Colchester and Bath that have no recorded new cases.
The new figures follow the unprecedented move to cancel up to 55,000 non-urgent operations for the month to free up beds and front line staff amid a rise in flu cases.
Certain NHS Trusts have cancelled non-urgent operations for the month to focus on flu
WHAT TRUSTS HAVE NO FREE BEDS?
- Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
- Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
- James Paget University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
- Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn, NHS Foundation Trust
- Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust
- West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust
- Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Bolton NHS Foundation Trust
- Tameside and Glossop Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust
- Weston Area Health NHS Trust
‘GP surgeries are finding it hard to cope’
Dr Kieran Sharrock, medical director of Lincolnshire LMC, told Pulse that practices in his area have been ‘flooded with winter-related illnesses and are finding it hard to cope’.
Certain out-of-hours services are regularly receiving more than 100 calls, which need to be prioritised for treatment, according to Dr Sharrock.
Some GP surgeries have run out of locum doctors, while one practice even asked patients to make their own way to hospital rather than calling an ambulance as Dr Eamonn Jessup, North Wales LMC chair, says services are ‘creaking at the seams’.
Amid the chaos, patient safety has become a serious concern, with Dr Jessup adding, ‘there are patients who you would normally like to go into hospital who you are trying to keep at home and taking more of a risk than you normally would.’
Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, one of the hospitals encouraging patients to make their own way in, responded to more than 4,100 emergency incidents on Christmas and Boxing Day alone, 781 of which were life-threatening. This is up by around 200 cases from last year.
Prime Minister Theresa May denied the NHS is in a crisis (pictured walking around a new housing development in Wokingham yesterday). She has since visited one of the Trusts
What does the map show?
Flu prevalence throughout the UK is recorded via an online ‘flusurvey’, which members of the public can log on to and record their symptoms. True cases may therefore be highly under-represented.
The data is used by researchers from Public Health England and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to monitor flu trends in the UK.
New flu cases are defined as a sudden onset of at least one of the following symptoms: fever, headache, muscle pain and a general feeling of poor health; alongside one or more of the following: cough, sore throat and shortness of breath.
The map was correct at the time of writing the article. The flusurvey data is updated every three minutes.
Ms May’s comments followed an apology by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt for the affected patients following pressure from critics for him to speak out about the controversial move (pictured outside the BBC Wogan House in London yesterday)
HOW HOSPITALS WILL TACKLE THE CRISIS
- Non-urgent operations and hospital appointments scheduled for the rest of January are to be postponed.
- Cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead as planned.
- Hospitals should contact patients to tell them if their appointments are cancelled.
MIXED SEX WARDS
- NHS rules banning mixed sex wards will be temporarily lifted to help hospitals use all available beds.
- Usually hospitals are fined £250 every night that a patient has to stay in a mixed ward, but this will be waived.
- Patients can request a move if they have strong objections.
DOCTORS ON THE DOORS
- Consultants whose appointments are cancelled are expected to pitch in by manning the doors of A&E.
- Patients could be questioned by doctors as soon as they arrive at hospital.
- They will then be told to wait for a full examination, be seen immediately, or be given advice and sent home.
How serious is the NHS crisis?
Record numbers of patients are being forced to wait in ambulances for treatment as 12 hospital trusts have no free beds to treat those coming to A&E.
NHS data shows the stark winter pressures have gripped casualty units across the country, with ambulance delays of an hour having doubled in a week.
A total of 16,900 people were forced to wait for more than 30 minutes to be seen by staff at A&E over the Christmas week – the highest total this winter.
Some 4,734 ambulances faced a wait of at least an hour, despite guidelines saying this should be no longer than 15 minutes, during the week ending December 31.
The statistics, published by NHS England, also showed 12 trusts, which manage 16 hospitals, were operating at 100 per cent bed occupancy levels.
This figure is double that of the same day in 2016, when just six 100 per cent bed occupancies were recorded. The Red Cross branded last winter’s situation a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
Families have also been asked to look after elderly patients at home to free up beds as hospitals struggle to cope with the ever-increasing pressure.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May refused to accept the NHS was in a crisis, despite admitting the ‘extremely difficult circumstances’ A&E units are facing.
Ms May visited Frimley Park Hospital near Camberley today, which is one of the trusts cancelling non-urgent procedures.