Thousands of people could see their plans for mince pies and merriment turn to misery if flu levels reach expected levels in late December and early January.
The call to action from Michael Marsh, NHS Medical Director is that flu can take its toll on anyone, but those aged over 65 or who have long-term conditions are particularly vulnerable to complications requiring hospital care.
NHS teams in GP surgeries, A&E departments and hospital wards are already seeing the number of people coming forward for treatment increase, with some schools also reporting suspected outbreaks.
Officials are confident that the free vaccinations supplied by the NHS this year are well-matched to the strain of flu circulating, so taking up the free jab – or nasal spray for children – offers the best possible chance of staying well this winter.
But concerns remain for those who are yet to protect themselves or their children, who can spread the virus from schools and nurseries to family members even if they don’t succumb to symptoms themselves.
Dr Michael Marsh, South West Medical Director for NHS England and NHS Improvement said:
“Nobody wants to be laid low by a nasty cold or flu while the festivities are in full swing.
“And we know that children are ‘super spreaders’ of flu, particularly around the holiday season when they’re more likely to see elderly relatives.
“That’s why the NHS pays for vaccinations for all these groups, and this year we’ve stocked up more doses than ever.
“So our message is simple: don’t miss out on your free NHS flu jab this year and make it a Christmas to remember.”
The health service in England has prepared for its largest ever flu protection drive to help keep people well and ease pressure on urgent care services over the colder months.
Respiratory problems were the single most common cause of a trip to A&E for the over-65s in December 2018, closely followed by cardiac conditions, which can also follow a dose of flu.
NHS-commissioned school vaccination teams, maternity services, general practices and local pharmacies have all been working hard since the autumn to deliver vaccines to primary school-aged children, two and three-year olds, those with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and people aged 65 years and over.
Millions of doses of flu vaccines remain unused, however, so the public are being urged to speak to their local pharmacy or GP practice to arrange a vaccination for themselves or their children.