Advice to Londoners as Covid and flu cases rise

Doctors are warning winter virus cases are increasing alongside pressure on NHS services as data shows the number of people testing positive for Covid continues to rise in London.

In the run up to Christmas London had the highest rate of Covid in England, with data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) estimating that around 6.1% of Londoners had the virus as of December 13, more than 1 in 20 people, the highest proportion of any region.

Around 4.2 per cent of people in England and Scotland were estimated to have the virus as of December 13 – the equivalent of one in 24 people.

Just before Christmas there were around 700 beds occupied with confirmed COVID patients in London hospitals. Figures released show an average of 220 people were in hospital in the capital with flu in the week before Christmas (18 to 24 December), up 67 percent on the week before.

Norovirus cases continue to cause problems in hospitals across the capital with an average of 56 beds closed each day and unable to be used due to measures to stop the spread of norovirus to other patients in the week ending the 17 December.

Senior medics across the region have cited an increase in the number of people socialising indoors for the rise in cases and are advising people to take steps to protect themselves, and those around them from falling ill – especially those who are at risk of becoming very unwell if they become infected.

Additionally, data shows that vaccinations for eligible Londoners against flu and Covid are behind those across the rest of the country with an overall uptake of for Covid jabs of 36.8 per cent. Uptake in England is higher at 53.1 per cent.

Of those eligible for a free flu jab from the NHS 38.6% have been vaccinated, with 2.8m eligible patients still remaining. Overall uptake in England is higher at 49.2%.

Dr Mary Ramsay, Director of Public Health Programmes at UKHSA, said:

“The effects of the recent cold weather and increased socialising indoors in the run up to Christmas are unsurprisingly causing flu and COVID-19 to spread more easily and numbers infected going up further.

“Pregnant women and those in clinical risk groups are at higher risk of complications from flu but over 60% of these groups remain unvaccinated – so we urge them to come forward. Children aged 2 or 3 years are also eligible for a quick and painless nasal spray flu vaccine, which helps prevent hospitalisations, as well as helps parents from not having to juggle a poorly child with work and other commitments.

“If you are showing signs of a respiratory illness, like flu and COVID-19, try to limit your contact with others as much as possible, particularly those who are more vulnerable.”

Experts are monitoring the new variant JN.1, as it is known, with the UK Health Security Agency stating that it makes up around 7 per cent of positive Covid tests analysed in a lab in the UK.

Dr Meera Chand, Deputy Director at UKHSA, said:

“Through our genomic surveillance we continue to see evolution of variants in the Omicron family. We are monitoring JN .1 closely and the prevalence of this variant is increasing.

“Vaccination remains the best defence against severe disease from COVID-19 infection and there is still time to get your vaccine this winter if you are eligible.”

Pressures are being felt across London, with frontline staff reporting increases in demand and viruses on the rise in their communities.

Richard Jennings, group chief medical officer, St George’s, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals and Health Group, said: “Our three emergency departments are responding to very high demand at a time when our hospitals are very full, and in particular we are seeing an increase in people coming to our emergency departments with norovirus and flu – both of which can make vulnerable people very poorly.

“After very high summer attendances in our emergency departments, hospitals have remained extremely busy with sick people needing our care.

“So – while all our doctors, nurses and other colleagues work hard to get everyone well again and discharged home – you can support your local NHS by getting vaccinated against flu and covid and, if you need health care advice when it’s less urgent, please use NHS 111 online.”

The data comes as the NHS braces itself for further industrial action next week, with junior doctors staging the longest consecutive strike in NHS history, six-day strike from 7am on Wednesday 3 January during one of the most challenging periods of the year.

Chris Streather, Regional Medical Director for the NHS in London said: “This latest data will come as no surprise to those of us working in the NHS, who are seeing the number of people coming to emergency departments and patients in hospital with viruses like flu, and norovirus creeping up, and continued Covid pressure.

“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 celebrations, we expect to see a continued increase in winter viruses spreading in the community and in some cases, this will lead to hospital admissions.

“And now we are also preparing to mitigate the impact of the longest period of strikes in history, once more prioritising urgent and emergency care – including emergency surgery – to protect patient safety and ensure those in life-saving emergencies can receive the best possible care.  The public can continue to play their part by using NHS services in the usual way and calling 999 in an emergency and using NHS 111 for other health conditions, and by getting their flu and Covid jabs if eligible.”

Lesley Larkin, Interim Deputy Director, Gastrointestinal Infections and Food Safety (One Health) Division at UKHSA said:

“Norovirus cases continue to rise, especially among those 65 and older and in care homes.

“If you have norovirus or any other stomach bug that causes diarrhoea and vomiting, you can take steps to avoid passing it on to family and friends over the festive period. Don’t prepare food for others if you have symptoms or for 48 hours after symptoms stop.

“Many of us will be travelling over the festive period, but you should avoid visiting people in hospitals and care homes to avoid passing on the infection in these settings. Do not return to work or school once term restarts, until 48 hours after your symptoms have stopped.

“Washing your hands with soap and water and using bleach-based products to clean surfaces will also help stop infections from spreading.