Virus trio could push British hospitals to brink in winter, scientists warn

The NHS winter bed occupancy already exceeded 95 per cent before the pandemic. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - A mix of Covid-19, influenza and a respiratory virus common among children could push the UK's National Health Service to the breaking point this winter, according to a new report.

The Academy of Medical Sciences warned that hospital admissions and deaths from flu and respiratory syncytial virus could double from normal levels alongside a third Covid-19 wave. New modelling showed that flu deaths in Britain could hit 60,000 in the worst-case scenario.

People can harbour three viruses at one time, and a test that detects all three illnesses is needed to protect the public, according to the study's authors.

"Fast test results would allow doctors to distinguish quickly between illnesses, treat where appropriate with antivirals against flu, and spot trends," said Stephen Holgate, professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton.

"We as a society owe it to our fellows to make sure we limit the possibility of transmitting the virus." Further down the road, vaccine maker Moderna Inc. is aiming to develop an annual supershot that could suppress numerous respiratory ailments, including Covid-19 and the flu.

A surge in respiratory diseases other than Covid-19 is possible this winter because the UK population had less exposure to them last year due to lockdowns. Thursday's report suggests 15,000 to 60,000 people could die from flu during the season, compared with a worst-case scenario of as many as 30,000 in a normal year.

'Triple whammy'

Although the high end of that range is unlikely, "a triple whammy of these infections, on top of the backlog of care, is likely to put a strain on the NHS," said Azra Ghani, chair in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London.

"As we start to emerge, and our contact patterns start to return to normal, we can expect Covid-19 to spread throughout the population," she said in a briefing. "On top of that, we have the unknown timing of other diseases."

The NHS winter bed occupancy already exceeded 95 per cent before the pandemic and it will have a reduced capacity this year due to virus measures. A shortage of nearly 84,000 staff and 2,500 general practitioners will add to the pressure, according to the report.

Government advisers warned earlier this week that Covid-19 deaths could rise to 200 a day in England, well above current levels but below a January peak of 1,200, following the latest reopening steps next week.

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