Labour has urged for all over-50s to receive a free flu vaccine to prevent a ‘perfect storm’ of a winter flu outbreak and second Covid-19 wave.
Leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Government owed it to the NHS to do all it could to prevent the two outbreaks coinciding.
It comes as The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has warned a resurgence of Covid-19 could bring the ‘NHS to a grinding halt’ if it strikes alongside influenza.
Some 10million more doses would be needed to expand the vaccination programme to over-50s, on top of the 25million already given out every winter.
Sir Starmer says this is ‘doable’ but manufacturers have admitted they may not meet the supply demand at such short notice.
Free flu jabs are given to all over-65s, pregnant women, young children and Britons with serious illnesses like asthma or heart or kidney disease.
Plans to vaccinate more people against influenza are already being considered by ministers after government scientific advisers recommended it.
There are concerns flu may overwhelm NHS hospitals, which already face the threat of being struck by a resurgence of coronavirus later this year.
A second wave of Covid-19 is not certain but leading scientists fear the cold weather will drive up cases, just like it does for other seasonal illnesses.
Speaking to Sky News on a visit to London’s University College Hospital, Labour leader Leader Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘We owe it to them [the NHS] to ensure that we take the preventive steps going into this winter. We’re calling for vaccination for all those over 50’
Labour has urged for everyone over the age of 50 to receive a free flu vaccine to prevent a ‘perfect storm’ of a winter flu outbreak and second Covid-19 wave (stock)
Sir Starmer said he didn’t think a second wave was ‘inevitable’, but that local outbreaks – which could lead to local lockdowns, such as that seen in Leicester – were ‘likely’.
Speaking to Sky News on a visit to London’s University College Hospital, Sir Keir praised the NHS for ‘an incredible job’ in handling the Covid-19 crisis.
IS A SECOND WAVE INEVITABLE AND WILL IT BE THIS WINTER?
Almost all scientists agree the infection is bound to re-emerge in a second wave in the absence of a vaccine or cure for the coronavirus.
Dr Andrea Ammon, the EU’s boss on disease control, has warned the virus is not going away any time soon because it is ‘very well adapted to humans’.
She has urged Europe to prepare for another crisis, which she said was inevitable because so few people will have developed COVID-19 immunity.
In an interview with The Guardian on May 21 she said: ‘The question is when and how big, that is the question in my view.’
Dr Hans Kluge, director for the WHO European region, said he was ‘very concerned’ a surge in infections would coincide with other seasonal diseases such as the flu.
Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph in mid-May, he cautioned that now is the time for ‘preparation, not celebration’ across Europe – even if countries are show positive signs of recovery.
Professor Hugh Pennington, an emeritus microbiologist at University of Aberdeen, has said there is no evidence there will be a second wave of the coronavirus, contradictory to the thoughts of others.
Scientists have repeatedly referred to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as a sign the world is heading towards a devastating relapse in cases. But the flu is biologically completely different from the coronavirus and should not be comparable, Professor Pennington said.
But he added: ‘If we get the easing of lockdown wrong, far more likely would be a continuation of infections, many in the form of localised outbreaks, but not waves or peaks.’
Writing in The Daily Telegraph , he said Covid-19 tends to cause clusters of cases, which bodes well for the future.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, of Edinburgh University, said it is more likely the UK will experience small outbreaks of the coronavirus, rather than a ‘wave’.
At its peak, the reproduction – or R – R number was between two and three, which meant every infected person passed the virus on to two or three others. It is now between 0.7 and 0.9, putting it below the crucial level of one, which is when cases spiral out of control.
Professor Woolhouse, who is part of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told The i: ‘Am I concerned that the R number might creep above one? Yes I am. But am I concerned it will go back to where we were at the beginning of the first wave, no I’m not.
‘There is no prospect whatsoever that it’s going to go up to two or three again that’s far, far from the reality of what we might reasonably expect. I’m not so much concerned about a second wave, I’m concerned about a second bump.
‘The only way that a second wave could happen is if there were a complete collapse in lockdown and everybody just gave up on it despite what the Government said – and that’s just not going to happen.’
He said: ‘We owe it to them to ensure that we take the preventive steps going into this winter.
‘We’re calling for vaccination for all those over 50.
‘It will be the perfect storm this winter if we had an outbreak of influenza at the same time as the possibility of a second spike in Covid-19 because the symptoms are very similar.’
The symptoms of coronavirus – a fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, a sore throat – are very similar to the flu.
If people are protected against the flu, and understand they are highly unlikely to get it, it would avoid them mistaking their Covid-19 symptoms for influenza.
The flu vaccine, which is re-designed every year to be specific to the strains of influenza expected to circulate that winter, would offer no protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.
The point of vaccinating more people against the flu would be to ease the burden on the health service.
Sir Keir said expanding the vaccination programme would ‘prevent the NHS from being stretched in the way they have been in the last few months’.
The NHS has treated thousands of Covid-19 patients since February, when the coronavirus first appeared in the UK.
It was only made possible because routine operations were cancelled and the public largely stopped visiting A&E.
But if there is a major flu outbreak, it may not be possible to cope with the burden of patients who need hospital care for flu as well as Covid-19.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), also calling for free flu jabs for all over-50s, has said today is believed there was a ‘very real possibility of a second peak’ in Covid-19 which could bring the ‘NHS to a grinding halt’ when combined with the flu.
It has called on the Government to bring forward the normal NHS and social care workforce flu vaccination programmes, with the aim of 100 per cent of staff being protected instead of last year’s 71 – 86 per cent.
It said prisons and other settings should also get a dedicated flu vaccine programme.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the RCP, said: ‘With lockdown further loosening this weekend for many, there is no time to waste in ensuring that the NHS and social care are prepared for the very real potential of future Covid-19 waves.
‘It is crucial that we learn the lessons from the last three months, as well as considering the additional challenges that future waves may bring if they coincide with winter flu.
‘Staff across the NHS are nervous about what lies ahead and we owe it to them to do everything we can to ensure that the system is ready to cope.’
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has said the flu vaccination programme will be ‘a crucial part of preparing the UK for winter’.
‘We plan for the flu season well in advance and further details will be published soon,’ a spokesperson said.
Flu kills on average 8,000 people in England per year, and hospitalises thousands more.
Those who are most vulnerable – the older generations and people with weakened immune systems – are also most at risk of severe Covid-19.
Last winter 25million people in England were offered the flu jab, with officials expanding the annual vaccination programme to include all Year Six children for the first time.
Sir Keir said vaccinating an additional 10million people between the age of 50 and 65 in the UK was ‘doable’.
However, manufacturers of the jabs have warned they may not be able to reach demand from the UK and other European nations with similar plans.
Sanofi, one of the top NHS suppliers of flu jabs each winter, warned it would struggle to ramp up production of flu shots for the 2020-2021 season and that the additional requests were ‘beyond our anticipated and planned supply’.
UK-based vaccine manufacturer Seqirus, the largest influenza vaccine supplier in the UK, said it had seen a significant increase in demand – but claim to be ‘on track to provide more vaccines to the NHS than ever before’.
On top of that, experts have said delivering the jabs could be a logistical nightmare and people may need to receive their jab in pop-up surgeries.
A senior source, who the Health Service Journal described as being well-placed to comment, said: ‘The government is considering extending the vaccine to over 50s.
‘But they will struggle to buy enough vaccines to do that. They are likely holding out on announcing it as they want to be sure they can fulfil the promise.’
They added: ‘I have no idea how the government will deliver on this promise. The logistical exercise required to do so will be very tough.
‘There will need to create a similar system to that used by the testing system, perhaps by using car parks again and doing drive-through vaccinations.’