There have been 154 norovirus outbreaks reported in the last five weeks, compared to an average of 53 over the same time period in the previous five years
As England plans to enter its fourth and final phase of reopening on Monday 19 July, Public Health England (PHE) is warning people to take steps to avoid catching and passing the so-called winter vomiting bug.
According to PHE, 154 norovirus outbreaks have been reported in the last five weeks, compared to an average of 53 over the same time period in the previous five years.
Outbreaks of the highly infectious yet usually short-lived virus, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea, have been mainly reported in early year educational settings, PHE said.
Cases are returning to pre-pandemic levels just as England is set to reopen and could threaten the already “under strain” healthcare system, experts have warned.
Scientists have coined the term “immunity debt” to describe the phenomenon that occurs when people who have not been exposed to normal levels of viruses and bacteria experience a surge in infections as normal life resumes.
Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “We are now just days away from the lifting of the remaining restrictions in England and our NHS is under great strain.
“This has been compounded today by the warning that cases of norovirus, commonly known as the winter vomiting bug, have now reached pre-pandemic levels in summer.
“Considering the impact this has when it makes its way into hospitals – bed closures, infecting seriously unwell people and staff absence – it is frankly very worrying.
“At the moment, clinicians across the country are asking themselves exactly what the government is thinking given the fact healthcare is being ravaged.”
According to PHE, norovirus is easily transmitted through contact with infected individuals or contaminated surfaces.
Professor Saheer Gharbia, Deputy Director, National Infection Service, PHE, said that cases of the virus have increased as restrictions have eased, with more opportunity to spread between people in the community.
He said: “Symptoms include sudden onset of nausea, projectile vomiting and diarrhoea but can also include a high temperature, abdominal pain and aching limbs.
“Stay at home if you are experiencing norovirus symptoms and do not return to work or send children to school or nursery until 48 hours after symptoms have cleared.
“As with Covid-19, handwashing is really important to help stop the spread of this bug, but remember, unlike for Covid-19 alcohol gels do not kill off norovirus so soap and water is best.”
Other advice from PHE includes using a “bleach-based household cleaner or a combination of bleach and hot water” to disinfect potentially contaminated household surfaces and commonly used objects; washing any contaminated clothing or bedding using detergent and at 60°C, preferably wearing disposable gloves and, for those infected, avoid cooking and helping prepare meals for others until 48 hours after symptoms have stopped.