Rise in patients with winter viruses puts further pressure on hospitals

The number of flu patients in England is continuing to climb, with more than 1,500 people in hospital with the virus at the same time as junior doctors began their latest strike action.

Covid-19 patient numbers also remain on the increase, while norovirus levels look to be creeping upwards again.

The figures give a snapshot of the pressures on hospitals in the week ending January 7, which includes most of the six-day strike by junior doctors that began on January 3.

(PA Graphics)

An average of 1,548 people were in hospital each day last week with flu, including 107 in critical care beds, according to NHS England.

The total is up 18% from 1,312 in the previous week and up nearly two-thirds (64%) from 942 a fortnight earlier.

It is the highest figure so far this winter and the sixth weekly rise in a row, suggesting the peak of the outbreak has yet to be reached.

But levels are still lower than at this point last year, when more than 5,000 people were in hospital with the virus and the UK was in the middle of its worst flu season for a decade.

(PA Graphics)

The number of hospital patients testing positive for Covid-19 is also continuing to increase, with an average of 4,244 each day in the week to January 7, up 8% from the previous week and a jump of 81% since the start of December.

It is the highest weekly average since mid-October 2023.

The recent fall in norovirus levels looks to have come to a halt, with an average of 423 adult hospital beds filled last week by patients with diarrhoea and vomiting or norovirus-like symptoms.

This is up 12% from 377 beds the previous week, but below the 451 beds a fortnight ago.

(PA Graphics)

Norovirus is the most common infectious cause of diarrhoea and vomiting, spreading easily through contact with someone who has the virus or with contaminated surfaces.

The latest industrial action by junior doctors ran from January 3 to 9 and was the longest strike of its kind in NHS history.

Some 113,779 hospital appointments and procedures in England were rescheduled because of the walkout.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Separate figures published on Thursday by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) show the rate of hospital admissions for both flu and Covid-19 dipped in the first week of the new year, though this may reflect changes in behaviour over the holiday period, with less social mixing due to people being away from work and school.

Flu admissions in England stood at a rate of 5.1 per 100,000 people in the week to January 7, down from 6.2 the previous week, while admissions of people testing positive for coronavirus stood at 4.9 per 100,000, down from 5.2.

(PA Graphics)

Dr Alexander Allen, UKHSA consultant epidemiologist, said: “It’s promising that we see a decline in both flu hospital admissions and Covid-19, but this may be partly down to how people mix and seek health services differently over the Christmas period.

“Some indicators show that flu cases in the community are on the rise, so we are not out of flu season just yet.

“Time is now running out to get a flu and Covid-19 vaccine if you’re eligible.

“With just weeks left, those aged over 65, pregnant women and clinical risk groups can still speak to their GP about getting vaccinated.

“Children aged two or three years can receive a quick and painless nasal spray flu vaccine from their GP to help protect them against flu. Local pharmacies also continue to offer flu and walk-in Covid-19 vaccinations for free on the NHS.”