Margaret Wheeler on the need for Ministers to properly anticipate the threat of a winter flu crisis
You know it’s serious when the Chair of NHS England, Sir Malcolm Grant is quoted as saying that the NHS is more scared than ever about the risks of a heavy flu season this winter.
Over the past few months, Australia and New Zealand have faced the worst flu season in at least 15 years, with cases rising on the previous year by around two and a half times. Back in the UK meanwhile, rising waiting lists, operations and A&E delays, and now the threat of the winter flu crisis as bad or even worse than that down under, have led to the government imposing an arbitrary, empty bed target for hospitals and local authorities.
On top of this, last week’s Healthwatch report expressed strong concerns at the sharp increase in the number of emergency hospital readmissions (29% within the first 48 hours); and warned that patients could be discharged unsafely before they are medically fit in the scramble to free up beds.
As the British Medical Association has emphasised, staffing and funding crises are exacerbated during the winter months - in part because ‘demand is so great all-year round that the system is unable to cope with a seasonable spike in demand’.
Labour has called for an urgent review into flu preparedness, and for emergency funding and contingency plans to ensure both hospitals and council social services can meet the increased pressures that a severe outbreak of flu would cause.There is also the added concern over the efficacy of this year‘s flu vaccination. These are free on the NHS for over 65s, pregnant women, small children, and people with long-term conditions like asthma. But last year’s year flu jabs were only effective in a third of the cases because of a mutation when the virus came to the northern hemisphere.
New research by Labour shows that over half a million over 65s will needlessly miss out on their vaccination this winter, as will almost 350,000 small children. All a result of Ministers repeatedly slashing flu vaccination publicity campaigns, along with huge regional inequalities among over 65s.
The Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davis has acknowledged that there could be similar problems this year with the efficacy of the vaccination but, as she has said, it’s our best hope! We strongly support the call for as many people as possible to get their flu jab, including NHS front line staff who come into contact with older people in the community, hospitals and care homes.
In the Lords today, I will press the government on its preparations for dealing with the anticipated rise in flu cases this winter. I will call for extra funding, and coherent plans and contingency arrangements across NHS trusts and local authorities in order to get to grip with what may be the worst outbreak in years.
Baroness Margaret Wheeler is a member of Labour’s Shadow Health team in the House of Lords
Published 30th October 2017