Further pressure will be heaped on Norfolk's stretched hospitals and healthcare system within weeks as a new variant of Covid-19 spreads, an expert has warned.

Prof Paul Hunter, who specialises in infectious diseases, said the Omicron variant XBB.1.5, nicknamed Kraken, is already in the UK and is likely to lead to a new surge in Covid cases in a couple of weeks' time.

It comes as the county's hospitals and NHS services are already struggling to cope, with growing numbers of people needing treatment due to the 'twindemic' of Covid and influenza.

Fakenham & Wells Times: Prof Paul HunterProf Paul Hunter (Image: Archant 2013)

Prof Hunter, based at the University of East Anglia, said: "[Kraken] is already here and it had been spreading in the United States before this.

"It may well lead to a surge of infections, probably rising in a couple of weeks from now.

"When infection rates go up, so the number of people in hospital goes up.

"But I am not sure how high this infection rate will go or how much respiratory disease, hospitalisation or deaths there will be, although it will be nowhere near as high as it was this time last year."

Prof Hunter said the new variant would spread just as it looked as if the NHS might get some respite, with the current wave of Covid infections seemingly on the decline.

He said there did not seem to be a great deal of difference between the new variant and its predecessors and stressed people who had been vaccinated or had previously been affected would have some immunity against it.

But Prof Hunter said: "What the hospitals and the NHS have this year, which they did not have last year, are the high number of flu cases."

Mr Hunter said he was not able to say whether the number of flu cases has peaked and urged people to get flu jabs.

He said: "On average, if you catch flu now, you are more likely to die than if you get Covid now."

Fakenham & Wells Times: Prime minister Rishi SunakPrime minister Rishi Sunak (Image: LEON NEAL)

Against the backdrop of hospitals and the NHS struggling to cope, prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday that patients were not getting the "care they deserve".

He said national bed capacity was being increased by 7,000 and money had been made available to ease bed-blocking.

Fakenham & Wells Times: Sir Keir StarmerSir Keir Starmer (Image: Danny Lawson / Press Association)

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Sunak of "commentary without solution" and said: "He's still in denial about how we got here."