EVERY year, flu season puts an incredible strain on the NHS. It is always the busiest time for healthcare professionals as we try to ensure that everyone who is eligible for it receives their flu vaccination and is kept protected.

The flu causes a seasonal spike in deaths every winter and, as with all viruses, it tends to affect those who are most vulnerable; the frail, elderly and sufferers of complex chronic health problems. This year, however, we have an added threat to these already vulnerable groups of people – the threat of Covid-19.

Nearly 2500 people have died directly due to coronavirus in Scotland so far, a number expected to rise as we enter the winter months. As the search therefore to discover a vaccine against Covid continues, never has it mattered more that people take the flu vaccination programme seriously than this year.

It is great to see that the Scottish Government has anticipated a potential rise in cases of flu and has planned ahead by extending the flu vaccination programme to a wider population. This year, eligible for the flu jab will be all kids between the ages of two to five, all primary school children, pregnant women, anyone over the age of 55, anyone with a health condition, anyone living with someone who is shielding, unpaid and young carers, healthcare workers and social care workers.

As per usual, the vaccine will be available from your GP practice or from designated flu hubs and will be free of charge to those eligible. It is understandable that those not in the above criteria may be feeling anxious and may wish to be vaccinated. If that’s the case, do not worry, many high-street pharmacies will have these available for a small fee.

There will be much confusion and overlapping this winter of symptoms as the common cold and flu mimic symptoms of Covid-19. The most important thing to do is to recognise Covid-19 signs and symptoms early (fever, new and persistent cough, loss or change in the sense of taste and smell) and err on the side of caution, assuming it’s Covid until proven otherwise – ie. via Test and Protect. The management for all these conditions remains standardised with plenty of rest, fluids and paracetamol if required. You will be required to self-isolate from the first day of symptoms for 10 days and await your result.

Flu vaccines cause antibodies against the virus to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. The aim of the programme is to try to prevent the majority of people from contracting the flu and therefore reduce the number of cases. Both the flu and common cold is spread in the same way as Covid-19.

This year we are all exercising extreme infectious control measures of social distancing, wearing face coverings and hand-washing. These measures plus the vaccine should hopefully help to minimise the transmission of the flu virus.

From October onwards, practices will start contacting patients in a phased manner to go in and get their vaccination.

Each year we see a reduced uptake but I urge you not to ignore your appointment this year. It is vital to get your vaccination and to arrange for the vulnerable folk around you to get theirs. We have lost far too many people this year to coronavirus. The pandemic is far from over and is about to get even more grim as we enter the winter months. Protect yourself and those around you and help save lives.