What's that bug going round? Covid variants, whooping cough and seasonal illnesses strike UK

You might not be the only one who thinks everyone is feeling under the weather. Credit: PA

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Connor Parker

If you're feeling a bit under the weather at the moment and feel surrounded by people in the same situation, you're not the only one.

An uptick in seasonal viruses like flu, norovirus, RSV and whooping cough has been combined with a new Covid variant to create a wave of illness across the country.

All of this has led to renewed pressure on the NHS with frontline doctors warning earlier this week that winter viruses are "creeping up" on emergency departments.

People being admitted to hospital with flu is up 50% in a week and norovirus levels in late November were three times higher than last year.

Norovirus admissions are already ahead of last year. Credit: PA

In addition, the NHS is facing another junior doctor strike over the Christmas period and at the start of the New Year, traditionally one of the busiest times of year for the health service.

Professor Julian Redhead, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Urgent and Emergency Care said: "Demand on hospitals and staff remains high, and as we experience more spells of cold weather and people gathering indoors for festive events and end of year celebration."

While an increase in seasonal virus admissions is expected, the addition of Covid and whooping cough looks set to ensure most people experience the dreaded winter cold at some point over the next few months.

The new Covid variant

The new covid variant JN.1, formally designated as V-23DEC01 was raised to the UKHSA on 27 October.

It was flagged because it contains a spike mutation that is known to get through the immune system. The UKHSA has tracked 301 cases in the UK but the true figure is likely to be far higher due to so few people testing.

Covid hospital admissions are below last year but they have started to rise. Credit: PA

The UKHSA's stats show in mid-November it represented around 8% of cases in England and is the fastest growing variant in the last eight months.

Due to the wall of immunisation built through previous infections and vaccines, it is unlikely to be as threatening as in the past but could still lead to a rise in hospital admissions.

Dr Meaghan Kall, an epidemiologist at the UKHSA wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the new variant "might cause a wave."

She said: "It seems likely we must now add variant pressures to the forecast of a winter Covid wave."

Professor Christina Pagel claimed current trajectories suggested JN.1 could be the dominant variant in the UK by January.

The JN.1 variant has been detected worldwide with notable outbreaks in Paris and Singapore.

JN.1 has been connected to a recent significant rise in the number of Covid hospitalisations in the French capital.

Whooping cough

There has been a three-fold increase in the number of whooping cough cases compared to the same period in 2022.

Some 716 cases were recorded between July and late November compared to 217 same period in 2022, according to the UKHSA.

Whooping cough, also known as the 100-day cough because of how long it can last, can be extremely dangerous to children.

It is a bacterial infection of the lungs and symptoms often look like a typical cold.

The junior doctor strike will add to the NHS's headaches. Credit: PA

After a week the cough can worsen and people with it begin making whooping sounds as they gasp for air between coughs.

Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, of the UKHSA, told The Sun the rise in cases was "expected."

She said: "Social distancing and lockdown measures imposed across the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the spread of infections, including whooping cough.

"As expected, we are now seeing cases of whooping cough increase again, so it’s vital pregnant women ensure they get vaccinated to protect their baby."

Before vaccines, whooping cough killed thousands of children a year.

Earlier this year the government urged pregnant women to make sure they get the whooping cough vaccine as figures fell to a seven-year low of 61.5% uptake.

Coverage for London is particularly low at just 41.4%.

Norovirus, flu and RSV

The usual seasonal viruses are also becoming more prevalent.

The NHS has said both norovirus and RSV is being seen more in hospitals than last year, but flu is heavily down from last year's record levels.

At the end of November NHS national medical director Sir Stephen Powis warned the health service was in for a tough winter from the seasonal viruses.

Flu is on the increase but no where near last year. Credit: PA

He said: "We all know somebody who has had some kind of nasty winter virus in the last few weeks, and today’s data shows this is starting to trickle through to hospital admissions, with a much higher volume of norovirus cases compared to last year, and the continued impact of infections like flu and RSV in children on hospital capacity."

The NHS recorded three times the number of patients occupying hospital beds with norovirus in November than last year.

The head of the NHS in England Amanda Pritchard warned earlier this month that "we are at a worse point than we were last year" with norovirus.

This has been slightly eased by the less dramatic flu season that last year, which was the worst in a decade.

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