Excess deaths in England associated with flu infection were higher (14,500) than the average figure (13,500) for the 5 years before the pandemic. This is the highest figure since the 2017 to 2018 season, when there were 22,500 excess deaths associated with flu.
The report also shows that the season started relatively early in the winter, but peaked quickly. Hospitalisations across all ages were higher than average, although some of this may be attributed to increased testing by the NHS compared to previous winters.
‘Flu returned at scale last winter after being locked out by COVID-19 control measures. Lower population immunity following flu’s absence played a part in the season starting relatively early and led to lots of people catching flu in a short timeframe,’ said Dr Conall Watson, Consultant Epidemiologist, UKHSA.
‘Many people needed advice from NHS 111 services and there were high numbers of severe flu episodes that required hospital care, placing pressure on the heath system.’
In addition, there is evidence to suggest that lower population immunity due to reduced flu circulation from social distancing measures during the pandemic meant that, overall, the population was more susceptible to catching flu than usual, contributing to the timing, shape and scale of the influenza season.
The vaccines were well matched to the predominant circulating strain. Vaccine effectiveness against being hospitalised by flu was analysed by looking at patients who were tested for influenza, and was consistent with analysis from previous seasons. The analysis found that getting vaccinated cuts the risk of being hospitalised by flu by a quarter in adults aged 65 years and older, a third in other adults and reduces the risk two-thirds in children. This is on top of the collective protection we all get from the vaccines reducing flu transmission.
‘The best protection against getting seriously ill and needing hospitalisation is to get the flu vaccine ahead of winter. We have clear evidence that the protection from last season’s vaccine programme helped prevent a much worse winter,’ added Dr Watson.
‘Plans for the delivery of this winter’s flu vaccine programme are well underway and we strongly advise all those eligible to take up the offer of vaccination this autumn.’