The deadly virus has now taken the lives of more than one million people worldwide and affected billions more, with cases in the UK edging closer to 500,000. It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced stricter measures to curve increasing numbers, including a new 10pm curfew for pubs and bars, as well as new rules on masks and group sizes. But it also came as Mr Johnson admitted the testing system “has huge problems” during an appearance before the House of Commons’ liaison committee after Test and Trace came under fire for how long it takes to reach positive cases and tell their close contacts to isolate.
Ministers have confirmed the relaunched app, which previously had an issue that meant it could not accept around a third of test results, has been resolved.
But, Dr Amitava Banerjee, of University College London, has warned there could be more problems on the horizon.
The Associate Professor in Clinical Data Science and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist told Express.co.uk: “We could see more testing chaos in the winter months, with more people getting seasonal flu and thinking they have coronavirus.
“The main reasons for current testing chaos is a shortage of testing infrastructure and failure of the Test and Trace system which is either not identifying all the people who need tests or identifying them late.
Matt Hancock has come under fire for testing already
Boris Johnson has moved to clamp down the UK
“There is an overlap of COVID-19 symptoms with flu symptoms and the people most at risk from COVID-19 overlap with people most at risk from flu.
“Therefore, during flu season, more confusion and more pressure on Test and Trace are not only possible, but highly likely.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports the worldwide circulation of influenza virus to be much lower than expected for this time of the year, thought to be largely attributed to the social distancing and hygiene protocols implemented for COVID-19.
But, an article in the peer-reviewed medical journal ‘The Lancet’ this month warns “this low circulation of influenza virus could be matters of both reassurance and concern”.
It goes on to state that the potential impact of altered infection testing priorities, health-care personnel capacity, and health-seeking behaviours during the pandemic should not be ignored.
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Test and Trace has already suffered setbacks
Head of Influenza and other Respiratory Viruses Section at Public Health England, Richard Pebody, said: “We need to bear in mind that the measures we’re putting in place to control COVID-19 may have some benefits for the flu as well.
“But with the resurgence of COVID-19, there may also be a double epidemic of flu and COVID-19 during the northern hemisphere winter.
“All that we can do about it is to be ready and prepared with a range of measures we’ve got in our community ammunition box.”
Dr Banerjee says it’s imperative to follow social distancing guidelines to avoid such a scenario.
He added: “I’m both a researcher and a doctor, that’s two angles, but I’m also a member of the public as well who is sending my kids to school and worried about when I’m going to see my folks.
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The Test and Trace app is said to now be working
Experts say social distancing is key
“I think that, naturally, this period that we are entering, we know that the flu virus and this virus as well is going to be more likely to spread.
“That’s why it is important more than ever to have the measures in place like social distancing, a functioning test, trace and isolate system.
“We know that the system has come under strain.
“I think the key message if you are eligible for a flu vaccination, it’s really important to get that and keep an eye on your symptoms, because they are very similar.”
One way to prepare for such a situation is to ramp up testing capabilities for both COVID-19 and seasonal infection, but that has already proven difficult in the case of the prior.
The flu season could bring more chaos
The Lancet paper suggests that combination testing for both COVID-19 and influenza could also be beneficial, as a single sample could be used to distinguish the two infections in patients presenting with similar symptoms.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the third emergency use authorisation in July for such a combination test, which is yet to be rolled out.
And a UK equivalent of the test is expected to be available in NHS hospitals this month.
For now though, until that is confirmed, Dr Banerjee says those that are “vulnerable” should most definitely get a flu jab.
He told Express.co.uk: “I’m interested from a point of view of the underlying conditions like heart disease, chronic lung disease and kidney disease – these make you ineligible for a flu vaccination.
Medical professionals face fresh battles in the winter
“They are also the same conditions that have made people more susceptible to have severe coronavirus infection.
“It’s the same population in both conditions that we need to protect.
“Scientific information has been presented along different routes early on in the pandemic about the overlap in flu and coronavirus and when the list was released of who should be shielding that was based on people who would be eligible for flu vaccines.”
Dr Banerjee has called for clear messaging from the Government and to focus their resources on having a strong testing infrastructure ready for the winter.
He added: “My biggest concern is people need to understand the importance going forward of not letting their guard down and keeping the infection rate as low as possible.
The testing infrastructure is said to be imperative
“Getting the messaging right is important.
“The other is that we need to have the infrastructure of test, trace and isolate in place and being used – that is a priority going into winter.
“We know that countries that lockdown and had test, trace and isolate fully in place and trusted by the public had less impact on deaths and the economy.
“Right now, we can’t have half measures – you can’t do both – we will do more damage by opening and closing without a strategy in place.”