Vaccinating as many staff as possible against influenza early in the season will be important if the health service is to cope with the predicted bad winter, infection control nurses have warned.
Information should also be available to hospital staff and visitors about how to spot the signs of flu, as well as immediately isolating and testing any patients who show symptoms, they said.
“The signs from the southern hemisphere winter have been that flu has been much higher”
The Infection Prevention Society was responding to a warning made by the head of NHS England, based on the experiences of countries in the southern hemisphere.
NHS England’s chief executive said the signs from Australia and New Zealand were a “heavy flu season”, which saw hospitals in those countries “struggling to cope”.
Speaking at NHS England’s Health and Care Innovation Expo, Simon Stevens said the priority for the next three to five months was to ensure the NHS was as strong as possible to deal with winter.
Freeing up delayed transfer of care beds would be vital to ensuring the NHS has enough capacity to manage winter pressures and a possible flu outbreak, he warned delegates on Tuesday.
“We have to take that opportunity to make that shift now before we get into winter”
He added: “We know there’s a great deal of work to be done over the next six to eight weeks with our partners and local authorities as well, to put the NHS on the right footing for the winter ahead.”
The NHS would have more beds available, but there would still be huge pressures, Mr Stevens told the conference in Manchester.
According to Health Service Journal, he was referring to 2,000-3,000 beds that are expected to be freed up if local authorities hit their delayed transfer of care targets this year. However, councils have written to the government to say the targets are “undeliverable”.
Australia and New Zealand have been hit by what some experts have called its worst ever flu season this year. Mr Stevens said: “We are reviewing the Australia and New Zealand experience, where hospitals have closed to new patients and reported very long waiting times.”
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Source: Neil O’Connor
After his speech, Mr Stevens said that if the H3 flu strain replicated itself in the UK it would put more pressure on the NHS.
“The signs from the southern hemisphere winter have been that flu has been much higher and it has been the variety that puts the most pressure on the older people’s services like care homes,” he said.
“The World Health Organization is reviewing the vaccines and if that reproduces itself here over this coming winter that is going to mean much more pressure on GP services and hospitals,” he said.
Mr Stevens added that the WHO would identify the best vaccine mix and that will be the one used by Public Health England.
Matthew Swindells, NHS England’s director of operations and information, echoed concerns about winter in his speech at the same conference.
The NHS should have been able to hit the A&E four-hour target in July and a failure to make enough improvements, particularly around hospital flow, would have a knock-on effect, he said.
“It is important that as many people as possible receive the flu vaccine”
A severe flu season, if it materialised, would only increase the need for extra capacity, said Mr Swindells.
“We have to take that opportunity to make that shift now before we get into winter,” he told delegates. “When the pressure of winter comes, if we haven’t done the work now, we won’t be able to maintain the sort of quality of service that we want across the winter.”
In response to the comments from Mr Stevens, Dr Neil Wigglesworth, president of the Infection Prevention Society, said: “It is important that as many people as possible receive the flu vaccine.
“This is particularly true for people who are more likely to be susceptible to illness, such as those with a serious medical condition, young children and those aged 65 and over, as well as frontline healthcare staff,” he said.
“Frontline NHS staff are well placed to help protect patients from flu by ensuring that they have their free flu vaccination early in the season,” noted Dr Wigglesworth.
He also highlighted other “simple measures” that hospitals and care settings could take to ensure they were best equipped to respond to winter flu.
These included ensuring information was available to both staff and visitors about “how to spot the signs of flu, as well as immediately isolating and testing any patients who show symptoms”.
He added: “Trusts are encouraged to make it easy for staff to access the vaccination; this will be very important if we do have a bad flu season in order to keep services running and maintain patient safety.”
Earlier this month, NHS Improvement chief executive Jim Mackey warned urgent action was needed to ensure enough hospital beds were available over winter. He said the government’s extra investment in social care had failed to reduce the number of delayed discharges.
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In its quarterly performance report for providers, NHS Improvement said the level of delayed discharges has increased since March, despite an extra £1bn being given to social care services.