Up to 1 in 10 children are infected with a respiratory virus at any one time during winter and millions miss school as a result.
Making the winter school break three weeks instead of two and reducing the summer holiday to five weeks instead of six would take pressure off hospitals by allowing children to recover from viruses before coming into contact with vulnerable relatives at Christmas. It also means they would be less likely to catch illnesses that could be passed on because they would not be mixing in school.
Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University, said: “When it gets dark and cold, we predictably see a spike in viruses which spread more easily as people spend more time together indoors. The holiday break offers a natural break for this spread of infections.
“If children could finish the term one week earlier it could help as it would reduce the number of infections being passed on. This would then reduce pressure on hospitals as it would mean less vulnerable and elderly people are exposed to these infections some of whom become severely ill and have to be admitted to hospital.”
Professor Heneghan, who is an urgent care GP, also called on the government to introduce “low tech” convalescent beds outside hospitals where people could recover from illness or injury without the need for expensive staff and equipment.
He said: “Over the last decade we have lost 8,000 adult general hospital beds while at the same time our population has increased by 3.5 million. The NHS has limited spare capacity, and it doesn't take much for it to be overwhelmed. We need around 10 thousand low tech community hospital beds where people can receive quality care from nurses for a few days while they recover without the need for expensive hospital beds and consultants."
He added: "We have an NHS winter crisis every year after which we forget about it until the following year. Unless we put in radical measures and a new plan we will be in the same situation again next year, reacting to the problem as it emerges.”
New NHS figures show the number of admissions to hospital for flu has spiralled by seven fold to 3,746 patients - up from 520 in the last week of November. Of these, 267 were in critical care beds. At the same time more than nine in 10 hospital beds are filled compared to 86 percent for the same period last year.
The figures come as health experts express concern over a surge in covid cases in China brought about by the widespread lifting of its strict zero covid measures. Some fear this will lead to new more dangerous covid variants. In response some countries including Italy, US, India, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan are to impose mandatory PCR testing on all passengers from China to pick up new covid lineages.
However many experts say these fears are baseless. Professor Robert Dingwall, former member of the government's Nervtag group, which assesses new and emerging viral threats said: “It is a fallacy to suggest the opening up of China increases the risk of new variants. A variant is as likely to arrive in Chingford as in China. There are billions of viral replication events when the virus infects every person and there have been an astronomical number of replication events since covid first emerged."
He added: “None of the samples seen from China show any cause for concern. However we know the most we can do by imposing travel restrictions is delay the arrival of a variant by two weeks. We cannot keep it out, it doesn’t give us time to prepare and it is hugely disruptive. Despite calls to “do something” about this, doing nothing is a better option.”
However Tory MP Steve Brine said: “this wouldn’t be happening if China was up front and shared its data.”
A government spokesman said: “We are supporting the NHS this winter, providing an extra £500 million on top of record funding to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds to get ambulances back on the road more quickly, increasing the number of NHS call handlers and creating the equivalent of at least 7,000 more beds.
“Almost 20 million people have had a flu vaccination and more than 17 million have had a Covid booster since autumn, and we urge all those who are eligible and have not yet done so book their Covid and flu jab to reduce pressure on the NHS where possible.”