The Government has announced the most comprehensive flu programme in UK history will be rolled out this winter, which will eventually see half the population of England eligible for the vaccine.
Initially the programme will be expanded to include people who have been shielding and their households, and those with pre-existing conditions, but later in the season, anyone aged 50 or older will be asked to have the vaccination.
The aim is to protect the NHS from the double jeopardy of a second wave of COVID-19 coinciding with a major flu outbreak.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: ‘The flu jab is the best protection we have against influenza and it is essential that as many people in at-risk groups – for example, older people, pregnant women and people with long term conditions or learning difficulties – get their vaccination when the season begins later in the year.
‘This announcement of an extension to the flu programme is sensible as we prepare the NHS for a busy winter and potential second wave of COVID-19, but GPs and our teams, who will be delivering the majority of vaccinations, need more detail about the practicalities of how it will work. Practices plan meticulously for the flu season every year to ensure the vaccination programme runs smoothly and as many people as possible get vaccinated – they will have made their orders at the beginning of the year and will need to amend these. We also need assurance that the Government can guarantee adequate supply for everyone covered under the extension.”
Professor Marshall added: ‘It is likely that COVID-19 will present challenges to delivering the flu programme – we will need to take measures to ensure all patients are safe when they come to get their vaccination, and we will need to ensure people, particularly in at risk groups, are confident in doing so. If a COVID-19 vaccination is available for use then this will also need to be factored in.’
The College has developed guidance for GP practices to support them to deliver mass vaccination programmes efficiently and safely while COVID-19 remains a threat. https://www.rcgp.org.uk/-/media/Files/Policy/A-Z-policy/2020/covid19/RCGP-guidance/RCGP-Mass-Vaccination-at-a-time-of-COVID-V15.ashx?la=en
Vaccine manufacturers have warned that they are already facing exceptional levels of demand globally and that demand may outpace manufacturing capacity.
A significant new group will be eligible for the free flu vaccine as people aged 50 to 64 will be invited later in the season for a vaccination.
As part of an unprecedented drive, a free flu vaccine will also be available to:
- People who are on the shielded patient list and members of their household
- All school year groups up to year 7
- People aged over 65, pregnant women, those with pre-existing conditions including at-risk under 2s
Once vaccination of the most ‘at-risk’ groups is well underway, the Department of Health and Social Care will work with clinicians to decide when to open the programme to invite people aged 50 to 64, with further details to be announced. The NHS will contact people directly, including information about where to go to get the vaccine.
The expanded flu vaccination programme is part of plans to ready the NHS – both for the risk of a second peak of coronavirus cases, and to relieve winter pressures on A&E and emergency care.
Increased vaccinations will help to reduce pressure on the NHS this winter by preventing flu infections which can cause hospitalisation and death.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘It’s mission critical that we pull out all the stops to get ready for winter, and the Prime Minister has already announced £3 billion to protect the NHS.
‘We are now taking another important step to help protect the wider public by giving the flu vaccination to more people than ever before. This will be the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and will help protect our NHS as we head into winter.’
Mr Hancock urged anyone who is eligible for a free vaccine, whether it’s for the first time or because they usually receive one, to get it to protect themselves and the NHS.
Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty said: ‘This winter more than ever, with COVID-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks. Vaccinating more people will help reduce flu transmission and stop people becoming ill.’
Dr Nikki Kanani, GP and NHS medical director for primary care, said: ‘GPs, nurses, community pharmacists and others will be going to great lengths this year to give this vital protection to millions more people in a safe and convenient way, so when the time comes I would urge everyone invited for a flu vaccination to get it as soon as possible.’
All frontline health and social care workers will also be urged to get their free vaccine to protect themselves and their patients or residents from the flu.
Last season (2019-20) the total number vaccinated was 15,344,033. This figures includes those aged over 65, those in clinical at risk groups, pregnant women, children aged 2 to 3, all primary school aged children, and healthcare workers.