• High levels of flu in Australia two months early
  • RCEM president warns ED systems need strengthening
  • PHE said Australia was not necessarily a predictor for the UK, but it was monitoring the situation

The leader of England’s emergency care doctors has called for the NHS to take action now to prepare for a possible flu epidemic as Australia battles an early outbreak of the virus. 

The latest figures for Australia show nearly 94,000 confirmed cases of flu so far this year, far above the levels seen in previous years – last year the total number was around 12,000. Weekly figures for the beginning of June are on a par with the numbers of cases normally seen in July and August, the height of the Australian flu season.

A hundred and forty seven people have died from the flu in the first five months of the year, compared with 23 at the same point in 2018.

The very high figures may just show an early-peaking outbreak rather than an epidemic but are causing concern in the UK.

Royal College of Emergency Medicine Taj Hassan said the Australian figures looked “very scary indeed. We struggled last year [in A&Es] in incredbly benevolent circumstances. I am not sure that is going to happen this year. It is very important that we prepare.

“Perhaps we need to start vaccination early and set aside some money.”

He said work needed to be done in several areas including vaccination uptake for healthcare workers and “at risk” groups, and robust planning for increased bed capacity. He was particularly concerned about people who might be stuck in corridors, waiting for beds to become available. 

“NHS England will really need to focus on how to provide clear ringfenced extra resources for these people,” he said. 

Deputy chief executive at NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said: “The spike in flu we are seeing in Australia could be a worrying signal of what is to come for health and care services this winter.

“Planning for vaccinations is based on what happens in the southern hemisphere. Based on what we are seeing we will need to make sure plans are put in place early and as resilient as they can be.

“This highlights the importance of planning for winter. Trusts are already working hard to improve vaccination uptake among staff, and will strive to improve this further. We must get immunisation rates as high as possible. We must also get our resilience plans in place as early as we can.”

PHE said that flu activity in Australia was not necessarily a predictor of the UK’s flu season. “We are monitoring closely, to see if the high levels of activity continue or if this early activity represents the peak for this season,” said Richard Pebody, head of flu surveillance at PHE.

“What we’re seeing in Australia highlights the importance of anyone who is eligible taking up the offer of flu vaccine when the campaign launches later in the autumn. This includes frontline health and social care workers to help protect the people they care for.”

Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia’s chief officer, told local media that “this is a very unusual early season and it has caught people a bit by surprise.” He said Australia had seen more cases than at the same point in 2017, when it suffered a severe flu outbreak.