'We need to be better prepared than ever': Lancashire public health boss issues winter warning
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That is the appeal from Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, who has warned that the cold months to come could be “rough”.
Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that after two winters during which Covid was the dominant concern, this year flu and rising food and fuel costs can be added to the list of threats to Lancashire’s collective wellbeing.
While he is relatively sanguine about the likely severity of the next phase of the pandemic, which he believes will continue to “ebb and flow”, he says that it is still vital that people protect themselves from the virus as best they can - not only for their own benefit, but that of a society that could be facing multiple winter struggles.
“It’s going to be doubly important that we look after ourselves - even better than we [did] during previous [years] - because now we have the rising cost of living, along with Covid still [being] around.
“We will have a wave of Covid, but it is unlikely that it will be as severe as we have experienced [previously]. One thing that is certain is that it's going to be a bit uncertain - but we’re not spotting anything round the corner as yet with regards to Covid
“Flu, if it does happen, is likely to be [difficult], based on the experience in Australia and the southern hemisphere,” Dr. Karunanithi added.
He urged eligible groups to take up the offer of flu jabs and Covid boosters, the rollout of which is now under way across Lancashire.
It is feared that flu could be more widespread this year, having recently been stunted by social distancing measures since the onset of the pandemic. Research has also shown that people who contract Covid and flu at the same time are more likely to become seriously ill.
However, the public health boss - who became a prominent figure during the depths of the pandemic - recognised the risk of vaccine fatigue amongst those sections of population who need protecting the most.
“For some of us, [the autumn Covid booster] will be our fifth dose. I perfectly understand that this is an unusual situation, but it’s one of the best protections we have.
“So I would encourage everyone who is offered the vaccine to please take it without fail, especially if you have an existing condition and even though you may have had Covid before - it is really important to have the booster.
“As the months progress, we are also getting better at knowing about this virus and, indeed, the [booster] vaccines…address [the Omicron] variant as well.”
However, for Dr. Karunanithi, the recent surge in inflation - reflecting spiralling energy and food prices - is just as big a public health conundrum as anything that might more traditionally be considered to fall within his remit.
Just before the Queen’s death, the government announced details of its energy price guarantee for domestic properties - meaning the typical household will have an average dual-fuel bill of £2,500 for the next two years, down from the £3,549 to which such bills would have risen next month under the price cap previously in place and averting the further increases that had been predicted for the new year.
Locally, the county council itself is spearheading a “warm hubs” scheme, which will see it offer its libraries as places for people to gather to escape cold homes that they are unable to heat. County Hall is also working with district authorities and community organisations on the provision of other suitable buildings.
But Dr. Karunanithi said that some Lancashire residents would nevertheless find themselves in need of the kind of “local connections” built up earlier in the pandemic.
“It’s what we have already done in Lancashire, certainly for the last two or three years - looking after the vulnerable across the county. And we are going to need to look after each other [again] this coming winter.
“We’re going to rely on our experience and memory - and, to a large extent, the compassion we showed each other.
“There is a lot of work that the [county] council is doing with partners in supporting people through this slowly but surely rising tide of [the] increasing cost of living. [It] is a fundamental health need to meet our basic needs - without food and fuel, there is no public health.
“We’ve had shock after shock [to] our system since Covid started - and this [winter] we need to be even better prepared.”
According to the Office for National Statistics’ Covid infection survey, 1 in 75 of the population of England - 705,000 people - had the virus in the week ending 5th September. Although still a huge number, it does represent the continuation of a decline seen over recent weeks.
However, case numbers are rising in Scotland and the trend is uncertain in Wales and Northern Ireland, meaning that the picture for the UK as a whole as the country heads towards winter is unclear.
Nationwide, in the week to 2nd September, Covid was mentioned as one of the causes of death on the death certificates of 252 people.
Meanwhile, in Lancashire, the number of people in hospital with Covid is falling – down from a total of 149 at the end of last month to 82, as of 14th September, at the four NHS trusts located wholly within the county.
VACCINE ELIGIBILITY EXPLAINED
Covid autumn booster
Another booster jab will be available this autumn to anyone aged over 50 and other specific groups. The national booking system is being opened in phases and is currently accessible to anyone who is:
***aged 65 or over
***aged five and over and at high risk because of a health condition
***aged five and over and at high risk because of a weakened immune system
***aged five and over and lives with someone who has a weakened immune system
***aged 16 and over and is a carer
***a frontline health and social care worker
It must be at least 91 days since your last dose before you can have a booster shot.
Anyone who wants a flu vaccine can pay for one at a pharmacy, but many people are eligible for a free jab on the NHS. They are those:
***aged 50 and over by 31st March 2023 (over-65s will be prioritised, with the over-50s not invited until at least mid-October)
***who have a range of health conditions, including diabetes, asthma and coronary heart disease
***who are pregnant
***who are very overweight, with a body mass index of 40 or above
***who are in long-stay residential care
***who receive a carer's allowance or are the main carer for an older or disabled person who may be at risk if their carer falls ill
***who live with someone who is more likely to get a severe infection because of a weakened immune system, such as people living with HIV and anyone who has had a transplant or who is having certain treatments for cancer, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
***who are frontline health workers or social care workers who cannot get the vaccine through their job
Where local circumstances permit, some people may be invited to have a Covid booster and flu vaccine at the same time, which the NHS has deemed to be a safe practice.
Flu vaccine for children
A nasal spray flu vaccine is available for free on the NHS for:
***children aged two or three years on 31st August, 2022
***all primary school children
***some secondary school aged children
***children aged between two and 17 years with long-term health conditions
Children aged between six months and two years who have a long-term health condition that puts them at higher risk from flu will be offered a flu vaccine injection, as the nasal spray is not licensed for the under-twos.