NHS winter crisis: Health officials plead with Scots to get flu jag as deaths reach 20-year high

Health officials have pleaded with eligible Scots to get a flu jag, after attributing the highest weekly number of flu deaths in 20 years to “multiple types of infection” among people who are once again in close contact following the pandemic.

Statistics released by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) on Thursday show the deaths of 121 people from flu were registered last week – an increase of 91 from the previous week.

Anecdotally, many Scots have complained of poor health over the winter season, with some experiencing “the worst flu ever” amid rising coronavirus infections.

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Dr Chris Williams, joint chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Scotland, offered his sympathies to all of those affected as he stressed GPs and their teams “are working incredibly hard … against a backdrop of intense workload and workforce pressures”.

Flu deaths in Scotland last week were at a 20-year high

He added: “The RCGP’s research and surveillance centre has picked up that GPs are seeing higher levels of respiratory illness affecting patients this winter.

“We can speculate that the patterns we are currently observing may relate to multiple types of infection circulating, among people who are once again in more contact than during the Covid-19 measures in recent years.

“We strongly encourage people to come forward for their flu jag, as well as the Covid-19 booster if you have been invited. It isn’t too late to protect yourself and your loved ones.

“Masks, hand washing, and social distancing are still important to keep yourself well.

“Patients’ need for GP services is intensified in these periods, so we recommend using NHSInform.scot as a trusted self-help guide.”

The figures were been published after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week admitted Scottish hospitals were almost full amid what she has described as the “most challenging winter ever”.

An increase in winter viruses, including flu, backlogs caused by the Covid pandemic and Brexit-related staff shortages have all been cited by Ms Sturgeon as reasons for hospitals being at near total capacity.

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Jillian Evans, head of health intelligence at NHS Grampian, said the flu figure was "sobering".

"The highest number of deaths in over 20 years – a lot of that will be because we've seen so much flu,” said Evans.

"It's a small percentage, but a very high number of people who were affected with flu. It's on the back of an extraordinary surge of flu incidents in the December period.

"Thankfully incidents of flu have come down. It's now at moderate levels in Scotland, which is very welcome. But we are seeing the effect of that surge translate now into deaths. Every one of those could have been considered to be an avoidable death."

Pete Whitehouse, director of statistical services at NRS, had earlier confirmed: "Deaths involving influenza have risen in recent weeks. There were 121 deaths where influenza was mentioned on the death certificate, up from 91 in the previous week.

"This is the highest weekly number of flu deaths registered in over 20 years."

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “My heart goes out to the loved ones of those who have died as a result of flu. My advice to people suffering from the virus is to check their temperature regularly, drink lots of fluids, take paracetamol and ibuprofen and get as much rest as possible.

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“But those with underlying health conditions or breathing issues should not be put off by the current well-documented problems in Scotland’s NHS from seeking a GP appointment.”

The number of people who died as a result of Covid-19 also increased last week, with 101 fatalities registered that mentioned the virus on the death certificate, up 17 from the previous week.

As of January 15, 16,568 deaths have been registered in Scotland where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

Nine people in total have died as a result of adverse effects of the Covid-19 vaccine, with four further deaths where an adverse effect was mentioned on the death certificate. There was no change to this number in December.

The total number of deaths registered in Scotland last week was 2,020, which is 29 per cent higher than the five-year average. The standardised death rate for Covid-19 rose in December – 59 per 100,000 compared to 40 in 100,000 the previous month.

Throughout the pandemic, the highest death rate for Covid was 585 in 100,000 in April 2020.

Around 93 per cent of people whose deaths involved Covid between March 2020 and December 2022 had at least one pre-existing condition, with the most common being dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

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Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “Every death from Covid-19 or flu is a tragedy and our sympathies are with all those who have lost a loved one.

“This year we have seen an extraordinary number of flu cases. Safe, effective vaccines for offer the best protection to those most at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and flu and I would urge anyone eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“Uptake for the winter vaccine programme is very encouraging with Scotland delivering more Covid jabs per head of the population among over-50’s than any other UK nation. However, although uptake is high, there is no room for complacency.

“To help stop the spread, wash hands frequently and cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and follow public health advice on good hygiene measures, like handwashing and using hand sanitisers. Increased ventilation, where possible, including socialising in well-ventilated spaces when you can, also helps reduce transmission risk, as does wearing a face covering in indoor crowded spaces and on public transport.”

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