People eligible for the flu vaccine will be encouraged to get the jab as winter approaches to help the NHS in its battle against Covid-19.
Good flu vaccine coverage could help the NHS “cope better” should there be another spike in coronavirus infections, one expert has said.
And Public Health England (PHE) has said that “vaccination is more important than ever” this year.
Figures released last week from the health body show that flu jab coverage last winter dipped slightly among all those eligible for a free NHS jab apart from the elderly.
People eligible for the free flu jab include: those aged 65 and over; pregnant women; primary school aged children, two and three-year-olds and people with medical conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart failure.
Figures released from PHE show that last winter – between September and March – 72.4% of over 65s got their flu jab.
For all other groups the figure was below 45%.
But a Royal Society of Medicine briefing on Covid-19 heard how preparing for flu this year may help the health service.
Academic Sian Griffiths, who co-chaired the Hong Kong inquiry into the 2003 Sars outbreak, said people should be “urged” to get the flu vaccine come winter “to protect themselves from getting flu when they’re also at risk from getting Covid”.
Prof Griffiths, who also serves on an advisory board for PHE, said that there is already a big push in the US by its Centres for Disease Control (CDC).
“CDC are particularly pushing this message at the moment to raise the numbers of people who have the flu vaccine,” she said.
“Because if we can diminish the demands on the health service system by getting adequate levels of flu vaccination, should we have another surge of Covid, it just will help us to cope better.”
Commenting, Dr Jamie Lopez Bernal, head of flu at PHE, said: “As we have seen with Covid-19, respiratory illnesses can be extremely serious and can even kill.
“People at high risk from Covid-19 are also those most at risk from flu. Fortunately, we have a safe and effective vaccine for flu.
“We are urging anyone who is eligible to take up the free offer this winter – particularly those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women where we tend to see lower uptake.
“Vaccination is more important than ever this year, it will help save lives.”
Meanwhile Prof Griffiths said that the NHS’s Test and Trace service for Covid-19 was “not working perfectly yet”, but was “improving”.
She said that one of the “stumbling blocks” was the rapid flow on information – as seen in Leicester
“I think nobody would claim that the system is working perfectly yet, but it is improving,” she said.
“One of the stumbling blocks has been flow of data – and that that has been something that again you’ll have heard in the reports on Leicester that the flow of data has not come quickly enough so that the Directors of Public Health are able to look at their populations and say, ‘we spot something going on here’ – they’ve had to rely on working closely with PHE.
“So there have been different, different sorts of blips on the way.”
She added that PHE and directors of public health working “well” together at local level is the “best way to do this”, adding: “That’s the way you’ll spot the new spikes if they come and to be able to respond appropriately.”