Three times as many people are dying of flu this winter in the UK, compared with last year.
There has been a big jump in the number of people hospitalised with the virus and further increases in the numbers being treated in critical care units, or visiting a GP with influenza-like symptoms.
The figures from Public Health England (PHE) show the worst flu outbreak since 2010-11 is affecting fewer adults but leaving growing numbers of children unwell.
But PHE believes the number of people contracting flu has begun to steady; a picture confirmed by the Royal College of GPs from its separate flu surveillance system.
“We are continuing to see flu circulate. However, rates across most indicators have remained relatively stable and signs are that flu activity is starting to peak,” said Richard Pebody, PHE’s acting head of respiratory diseases.
PHE said it hoped the fact that 1.5 million more people had had the flu jab this winter compared with 2016-17 would help limit the infection’s spread.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Influenza rates have levelled out for now. [However] there are still huge numbers of patients being seen in general practice with flu and other common winter conditions – and GPs and our teams are certainly feeling the pressure.”
NHS England admits that the service “has been under sustained pressure [recently because of] high levels of respiratory illness, bed occupancy levels giving limited capacity to deal with demand surges, early indications of increasing flu prevalence and some reports suggesting a rise in the severity of illness among patients arriving at A&Es”.
Many NHS bosses and senior doctors say that the pressure the NHS is under now is the heaviest it has ever been. “We are seeing conditions that people have not experienced in their working lives,” says Dr Taj Hassan, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.
The Royal College of GPs said that, based on its analysis of data from surgeries, the rate of people visiting a GP with flu rose in the south of England during January from 54.3 to 59.6 per 100,000 population, and in London from 42.1 to 44.9.
It fell in the north of England from 57.3 to 54.9 per 100,000 population and in the Midlands and east of England from 57.9 to 53.6.
During one week in January, 758 people were admitted to hospital as a result of flu, and 598 the week before. However, the number of people ending up in intensive care or a high-dependency unit because of flu went up only slightly, from 198 to 205.
Those figures are based on a sample of 22 trusts – about one-ninth of the total number – and the 205 figure does not represent the full picture of all those admitted to a UK hospital as an emergency because of flu.
Approximately 60% of children in England have had a free flu jab this winter, slightly more than last year. Almost two-thirds of frontline healthcare workers have also been immunised, up 2% on last year.