People are being urged to have their flu and Covid-19 booster vaccines after experts predicted the viruses could push the health service to breaking point this winter.
The government has launched the biggest flu programme in the NHS’s history, with more than 35 million people in England eligible for a free vaccine.
Covid booster jabs are also being rolled out, with around 1.7 million people given these third jabs so far and around 28 million people in England eligible.
The Covid booster must be given no earlier than six months after a second dose of any coronavirus vaccine, according to guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
As the weather gets cooler, experts are calling on people to take up the offer of a flu and/or Covid booster when the NHS contacts them, and not to delay having either jab.
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In some regions, people may be offered the Covid jab in one arm and the flu vaccine in the other on the same day, although this will not be available in every area.
Last winter, there were very few hospital admissions for flu as people social distanced but the health service is braced for a big surge in the coming months due to a lack of population immunity, people meeting more indoors and cooler temperatures helping the virus spread.
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “This year we are rolling out the largest flu vaccine programme in our history, alongside the new Covid-19 booster vaccine rollout; both are important to provide vital protection not only to yourself, but also your loved ones while also helping to ease pressure on the NHS.
“The Covid-19 vaccine programme is a fantastic example of how successful vaccination programmes can be – with around 130,000 lives saved.
“It is vital we continue that incredible progress with all those eligible ensuring they get both their flu and Covid-19 booster injections as soon as they are invited.”
England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said “Not many people got flu last year because of Covid-19 restrictions, so there isn’t as much natural immunity in our communities as usual.
“We will see flu circulate this winter; it might be higher than usual and that makes it a significant public health concern.
“Covid-19 will still be circulating and with more people mixing indoors, sadly some increases are possible.
“For the first time we will have Covid-19 and flu co-circulating. We need to take this seriously and defend ourselves and the NHS by getting the annual flu jab and the Covid-19 booster when called.
“Both these viruses are serious: they can both spread easily, cause hospitalisation and they can both be fatal. It is really important that people get their vaccines as soon as they can.”
More than 80% of people aged 65 and over had their flu jab last year – exceeding a global target of 75%. The NHS has set an ambition to reach at least 85% of this group this flu season.
It also hopes to reach at least 75% of people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma and heart disease, at least 75% of pregnant women and at least 70% of eligible children.
Those not eligible for a free flu jab can make an appointment for a paid-for dose at pharmacies.
All frontline health and social care workers will also be offered a flu jab, with an ambition that at least 85% will accept.
A report in the summer from Academy of Medical Sciences assessed how the triple threat of coronavirus, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) might affect the NHS this winter.
It found that hospital admissions and deaths from flu and RSV could be more than double those seen in a normal year, leading to as many as 60,000 flu deaths and 40,000 children in hospital with RSV.
A recent survey of 3,000 people for ministers found that nearly one third (32%) were unaware that flu and Covid-19 can circulate at the same time.
A quarter (26%) did not know that flu can be fatal and over half (55%) underestimated the number of people who die from flu in an average year in England (which is approximately 11,000).
NHS deputy vaccination programme lead Dr Nikki Kanani said: “Flu and Covid-19 both cost lives and the increased threat from the two deadly viruses this winter makes it even more important for people to continue sticking to good habits like washing their hands regularly.
“It’s important anyone eligible comes forward for a flu vaccine as soon as possible and books in their booster when they are invited – the vaccines are safe, effective and the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones this winter.”
One flu jab manufacturer has reported a one to two-week delay in delivering vaccines to the NHS but health leaders say they are unaware of other delays.
People can book their free NHS flu vaccine via pharmacies or they can wait for their GP surgery to contact them.
Those eligible for a coronavirus booster jab are being told to wait until they are contacted, although health and social care workers can book one online via the NHS website.
Earlier this week, Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) from Imperial College London, said the UK does not have much “headroom” for rising Covid-19 cases before the NHS becomes “heavily stressed”.