Influenza infections during winter always result in pressure within the NHS and this has been the case for many years, and is likely to continue to be the case. However, the past few years of covid lockdowns and restrictions on mixing has meant that the usual “natural immunity” boost that many of us get at this time of year didn’t happen, and as with all immunisations, protection tends to wain if it’s not challenged; hence the importance of boosters. This has been against the backdrop of the continued covid virus circulating albeit at “low levels.” So, we’re faced with a situation where as well as all of the other winder bugs (such as norovirus), there are two quite virulent viruses circulating that have the potential to spread and cause significant infections and hospitalisations. Whilst the majority of the adult population will be able to fight these infections off through resting, we have a significant and growing elderly population with increased susceptibility and hospitalisation potential. All adding to the pressures on the NHS.
The Government’s advice is to do several things: allay concerns that this winter will result in significantly higher numbers of fatalities (which we know it will), and to encourage the most mobile and potentially biggest pool of people to be cautious and take measures that they’re likely to already be familiar with – wear masks. Given the hype around the success of the covid vaccination programme, it seems a little counterintuitive to expect mask-wearing and social distancing. Scientifically, both of these measures will have an effect of the speed and spread of these viruses, but will require the UK population to be compliant. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the measures that were advised during the early covid infection days (washing hands, social distancing and face coverings) can significantly reduce the risk of infections, but whether this is something that we will need to adopt every year / every time the NHS is under pressure, will need further debate and discussion. The Government appears to be placing a lot of responsibility on individuals to take responsibility to try to address the problems in in the NHS; this is not unreasonable, but cannot be something that becomes normalised every year.
The fundamental problem seems to be that the NHS requires significant upgrading to meet the demands of the changing demographic and that anything we do is simply tinkering around the edges to get through another tight spot. If these fundamental problems are not fixed, then it’s likely that future winters may be accompanied by calls to work from home in an attempt to protect the most vulnerable. This is not a viable long-term option.
In the background of course, the life sciences community continues to develop treatments to fend-off further and future infections, and where these cannot be prevented, to develop treatments to prevent or reduce the time spent in hospital and critical care departments.
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