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Hertfordshire battle against flu is key to fighting Covid-19

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Falling flu infection figures signpost the way to living with Covid-19 in the future, according to Hertfordshire’s director of public health.

Professor Jim McManus has been slashing staff absence rates at the county council over the past three years with a vaccination and hygiene programme for workers which has also cut gastrointestinal illnesses.

In January 2018, more than 500 Hertfordshire County Council employees took sick leave after contracting influenza – but after year-on-year falls, figures for December 2020 show there has been no winter peak and minimal infections since April last year.

director of public health Jim McManus. (44747619)
director of public health Jim McManus. (44747619)

Prof McManus said: “As a nation, we have been far too complacent about coughs, sneezes and handwashing.”

The success of his long-term campaign has been echoed by the Government’s latest weekly national influenza and Covid-19 surveillance report for February 25.

There is growing evidence that masks, hand sanitation and social distancing measures introduced to clamp down on coronavirus are also responsible for cutting flu cases. Also, flu vaccinations are at an historic high level.

3D illustration of viruses in human lungs
3D illustration of viruses in human lungs

Public Health England’s Respiratory Datamart system was initiated during the 2009 flu pandemic to collate all laboratory testing information in the country and now monitors all major respiratory viruses in the country.

The most recent report shows that out of 107,819 specimens analysed, 3,456 (3.2%) were positive for SARS-CoV-2 – but none of the 5,445 flu samples tested positive.

Prof McManus said: “The key thing is the [Covid-19] virus is here and here to stay for the foreseeable future.”

He said the rollout of vaccines offered real hope but he did not expect the virus to be eradicated completely and said the good news should be tempered with a pragmatic approach to continuing precautions.

“Living with this virus for some time now is the key,” he said. “If we all do the right thing and don't get a bit too lax and let our guard down then I’m hopeful this would be the last time we are in lockdown.”

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