Emergency care doctors have said the NHS must step up its plans for dealing with flu after Australia was hit by a particularly bad outbreak of the virus.
Data from Australia shows 135,952 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu across the country so far this year, well above the 17,349 average at the same point over the previous five years.
Almost 300 people are thought to have died from the virus so far, compared with 125 for the whole of the flu season last year.
Weekly figures for the beginning of June have been on a par with the numbers of cases normally seen in July and August, the height of the Australian flu season.
However, some health officials have said Australia’s “moderately bad” season has probably already hit its peak, the Australian Associated Press reported.
In England, Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, told PA that the figures from Australia “make grim reading and, if extrapolated to the UK, will cause major stress to an already overburdened system in terms of numbers if not severity”.
He added: “One concern is that last year we saw predominantly one strain of influenzas but already there are reports of two or three strains significantly circulating in the population that could complicate vaccination.”
The president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Taj Hassan, told the Health Service Journal (HSJ) that the Australian figures look “very scary indeed”.
He added: “We struggled last year (in A&Es) in incredibly benevolent circumstances.
“I am not sure that is going to happen this year. It is very important that we prepare.
“Perhaps we need to start vaccination early and set aside some money.”
He said work needs to be done in several areas, including vaccination uptake for healthcare workers and at-risk groups, such as patients with diabetes or asthma.
He also called for more work on increasing hospital bed capacity and preventing long trolley waits.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “The spike in flu we are seeing in Australia could be a worrying signal of what is to come for health and care services this winter.
“Planning for vaccinations is based on what happens in the southern hemisphere.
“Based on what we are seeing, we will need to make sure plans are put in place early and as resilient as they can be.
“This highlights the importance of planning for winter.
“Trusts are already working hard to improve vaccination uptake among staff, and will strive to improve this further.
“We must get immunisation rates as high as possible. We must also get our resilience plans in place as early as we can.”
But Public Health England (PHE) said flu activity in Australia is not necessarily a predictor of what will happen in the UK.
“We are monitoring closely, to see if the high levels of activity continue or if this early activity represents the peak for this season,” Dr Richard Pebody, head of PHE’s flu surveillance, told the HSJ.
“What we’re seeing in Australia highlights the importance of anyone who is eligible taking up the offer of flu vaccine when the campaign launches later in the autumn.
“This includes frontline health and social care workers to help protect the people they care for.”
Helen Donovan, professional lead for public health at Royal College of Nursing said: “Flu is an unpredictable virus but this data from the southern hemisphere reminds us that the UK must be fully prepared to roll out vaccination to all who need it during the autumn.
“Nursing teams will work hard to deliver this, but we need sufficient numbers of nursing staff to do this most effectively.
“The importance of vaccination can’t be overstated, particularly for health workers and children.
“It’s the best way to reduce demand on hard-pressed health services, not least because it helps avoid the secondary infections that often follow cases of flu.”