The number of people in hospital with flu and Covid is at its highest level so far this winter as the NHS comes under further strain from strikes, with health chiefs warning the peak in infections is “still to come”.

The admission rate for patients with flu stood at 6.8 per 100,000 people in the week to December 31, up from 5.1 the previous week and the sixth weekly rise in a row.

It means flu admissions are now classed as having a “medium impact” on hospitals, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Levels are lower than at this stage a year ago, when the rate stood at 12.7 per 100,000 and the UK was in the middle of its worst flu season for a decade.

But the rise in admissions is likely to pile further pressure on NHS hospitals in England, which are currently facing the longest strike in history by junior doctors, higher-than-expected staff sickness and a jump in other seasonal viruses.

Dr Mary Ramsay, UKHSA director of public health programmes, said “more socialising indoors” over the festive period is likely to have allowed viruses to spread more easily, adding: “We could see further increases as we head further into winter and the weather drops colder.

“The winter peak for flu is still to come and may coincide with high levels of Covid-19.

“Those eligible for a flu and Covid-19 vaccine, such as those aged over 65, pregnant women, and clinical risk groups can still speak to their GP about getting vaccinated.

“Local pharmacies also continue to offer both bookable flu and walk-in Covid-19 vaccinations for free on the NHS. Children aged two or three years are also eligible for a quick and painless nasal spray flu vaccine from their GP.”

Admissions of people testing positive for Covid-19 stood at 5.2 per 100,000 last week, up from 4.8 the previous week and the fifth weekly rise in a row.

Flu admissions are highest among the 85-and-over age group, with a rate of 36.1 per 100,000 people last week, up from 21.8 the previous week.

The next highest rate is among children aged four and under, at 17.4 per 100,000, up from 15.3.

Covid-19 admissions are also highest among the over-85s, at 55.0 per 100,000 people, followed by 23.9 for 75 to 84-year-olds.

The latest strike by junior doctors began at 7am on January 3 and runs until 7am on January 9.

The action is part of a long-running dispute over pay, which has already seen 1.2 million inpatient and outpatient appointments rescheduled.

NHS England medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “As the longest strike in the history of the NHS begins, during one of the busiest and most challenging weeks of the year, the health service is experiencing the winter pressures of flu and Covid combined with the huge disruption of industrial action.

“We know hospitals are already experiencing significant demand with other NHS services also under immense pressure – and although staff are doing the very best for patients with extensive preparations in place, there is no denying the NHS has started the year in a very difficult position.

“This latest round of strike action will not only have an impact on this week but will have an ongoing effect on the weeks and months ahead, as we struggle to recover services and cope with heavy demand.”

More data on the performance of hospitals in England will be published on Friday, including ambulance handover delays and the number of hospital beds occupied by people with flu, Covid-19 or norovirus.

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