Fewer people are being struck down by the flu than at any time in the past 130 years.
Experts say that the bug appears to have been ‘almost wiped out’ after the number of sufferers plummeted by 95 per cent.
The second week of January, normally the worst time for the seasonal virus, saw the number of flu-like symptoms reported to GPs at 1.1 per 100,000 people – compared with a five-year average of 27.
John McCauley, director of the World Health Organisation’s collaborating centre for reference and research on influenza and one of the world’s leading flu experts, said: ‘The last time we had evidence of such low rates was when we were still just counting influenza deaths, and that was in 1888, before the 1889-90 flu pandemic.’
Simon de Lusignan – professor of primary care at the University of Oxford and director of the Royal College of GPs research and surveillance centre, which focuses on flu – said influenza has now been ‘almost completely wiped out’.
Despite there normally being thousands of hospital admissions during the second week of January, this year the admission rate was zero in England.
Experts believe the coronavirus pandemic has played a part in the dramatic fall in numbers, with increased hygiene and immunity leaving flu germs with nowhere to go.
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, told The Sunday Times: ‘It makes sense when you consider the lockdown restrictions, social distancing measures, and increased focus on maintaining good hygiene practices we are seeing at the moment — which will work to stop the spread of contagious illnesses such as colds and flu, as well as Covid-19.’
Prof Marshall added that there had also been an increased uptake of the flu jab this year with more than 80 per cent of the over-65s coming forward for the jab, according to the Sunday Times.
Another factor which could have contributed to the low flu numbers is the restriction on international travel which experts say has ‘disrupted the global circulation of influenza’.
According to the World Health Organisation’s latest data, influenza activity remained at lower levels than expected for this time of the year across the globe.
However, WHO warns that the Covid-19 pandemic may also have impacted ‘healthcare seeking behaviours’ as well as testing practices and says the data should be treated with caution.
It was feared by many to be the perfect winter storm, a nightmare situation that would push our health service over the edge: the ‘twin-demic’ of flu, which kills about 10,000 Britons every year, and a second deadly wave of the coronavirus.
It prompted the Government to roll out the biggest drive for flu vaccinations in history.
In September last year, Public Health England issued a plea, reminding people of the importance of getting the flu vaccine during the pandemic.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, director of health protection, said that flu would circulate during the usual high season but that we also had to deal with Covid-19.
In a video message, she said: ‘If people happen to be unfortunate enough to get both of these conditions, they may have very serious illnesses indeed.
‘So we’re trying to protect those – particularly those who are most vulnerable – from getting flu so they do not suffer from the risk of having both flu and Covid-19.’