Flu jabs: Everything you need to know about this year’s vaccine drive

Both flu and Covid pose an enhanced threat after two years of pandemic isolation  (Getty)
Both flu and Covid pose an enhanced threat after two years of pandemic isolation (Getty)

As winter flu season approaches, the British public is being encouraged to get jabs in early to avoid falling ill.

The NHS warns that people are more likely to be vulnerable to influenza in 2022 after two years of lockdown and social restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which conspired to keep us apart and inhibit the natural development of immunity.

What’s more, experts have warned that a “twindemic” of influenza and Covid could strike simultaneously in the coming months and begin to develop from as early as October, rather than December as is usual, raising fresh concerns that a health service already battling record treatment backlogs and waiting times could be placed under even greater strain.

Dr Catherine Smallwood, the World Health Organisation’s senior emergency officer for Europe, warned recently: “The preventive measures that have really kept seasonal flu at bay won’t be in place in the same way that they were in 2020 and 2021. So there will likely be an interplay between the different viruses.

“It may not be a typical flu season, we might see an atypical – it might come early and might come for a shorter period, it might come later on. So we need to be really agile in our response and be ready to respond to any changes in the virus circulation.”

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at Reading University, said: “We’ve never had a dual outbreak, so I’m concerned this UK season could be particularly bad. Catching flu and Covid together is particularly dangerous.

“Exactly what impact that’ll have on hospitals we can’t be certain of, because we don’t yet have a great feel for what society’s level of protection against severe disease will be.”

As Dr Clarke suggests, the lingering threat posed by Covid is worrying because research indicates that anyone who catches it in tandem with flu is more likely to find themselves seriously ill.

Although the infection rate from the Omicron sub-variants is low at the time of writing – down to just 145,000 cases per day, according to the ZOE Covid app data – that could soon change when the colder weather forces more people to socialise indoors, creating the ideal conditions to foster the spread of the virus.

As such, eligible people are advised to get their Covid booster jabs too.

Eligible people are being encouraged to get both their flu and Covid booster vaccines (Peter Byrne/PA)
Eligible people are being encouraged to get both their flu and Covid booster vaccines (Peter Byrne/PA)

Dr Jamie Lopez Bernal, consultant epidemiologist for immunisation and countermeasures at the UK Health Security Agency, said in late August: “With respiratory viruses increasing in circulation in the winter months, we can expect to see growing cases of Covid-19 in the coming weeks.

“We urge all who are contacted to come forward and accept their booster when called for their jab. The NHS booking system is now open for immunosuppressed people and those aged over 75.”

With these cautions in mind, here is everything you need to know about the flu vaccine.

Who is eligible to receive the jab for free?

While influenza is merely unpleasant for many, for older people or those with pre-existing medical conditions it can be dangerous or even life-threatening, so it is important to get inoculated to protect both yourself and those you are likely to come into contact with.

As it stands, the NHS flu vaccine is free to all adults who:

  • are aged 65 and over (including those who will have turned 65 by 31 March 2023)

  • have certain pre-existing health conditions

  • are pregnant

  • are in long-stay residential care

  • receive a carer’s allowance, or are the main carer for an older or disabled person who may be at risk if you get sick

  • live with someone who is more likely to get a severe infection due to a weakened immune system, such as someone living with HIV, someone who has had an organ transplant or is having certain treatments for cancer, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis

  • are frontline health workers

  • are social care workers who cannot get the vaccine through an occupational health scheme at work

From mid-October, by the time those most at-risk have had an opportunity to receive their injection, the scheme will also be opened up to the over-50s and those who will have turned 50 by 31 March 2023, in accordance with Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation guidance.

Your local GP surgery will be happy to book an appointment to administer the vaccine for you.

It might also be offered by some maternity services and hospitals in certain cases.

Which long-term conditions qualify for a free vaccine?

The NHS flu vaccine is free to anyone suffering from one of the following complaints:

  • respiratory conditions such as asthma (needing a steroid inhaler or tablets) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including emphysema and bronchitis

  • diabetes

  • heart conditions, such as coronary heart disease or heart failure

  • being very overweight – a body mass index of 40 or above

  • chronic kidney disease

  • liver disease, such as hepatitis

  • some neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy

  • a learning disability

  • problems with your spleen like sickle cell disease, or if you have had your spleen removed

  • a weakened immune system as a result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or taking medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy

Where else can I get the vaccine and how much will it cost?

If the above listed conditions do not apply, you can still pay to get the injection from commercial pharmacies such as Boots and Lloyds, provided you are aged 18 or over.

A recent Lovemoney survey reported that £16.99 was the most common price, although Asda was offering a jab for just £9.98.

You can find a local pharmacy providing the service near you here.

If you receive your jab from an NHS practitioner, there is no need to inform your surgery that you have done so, but if you receive it privately, you will need to tell your GP should you wish to have the fact noted in your medical records.

Who should not have the jab?

According to the NHS, pregnant women are advised to get the vaccine in order to protect themselves and their infant and are assured that it is entirely safe to do so.

It is also highly recommended for frontline healthcare or social care workers, who should have it provided for them by their employers.

However, the vaccine is not recommended for anyone who has previously had a serious allergic reaction to a flu jab (anaphylaxis), who is allergic to eggs or who is already suffering from a fever at the time of their appointment, in which case it is best to wait.

Are there any side effects?

The vaccine can take 10-14 days to take effect, according to the NHS, but is the best way to keep yourself and others safe from illness this autumn.

Similar to the Covid jab, patients might experience a slightly raised temperature, a sore arm at the point of injection and possible muscle aches immediately afterwards but these will swiftly pass in most cases.

Regular movement of the arm and doses of painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen are suggested as a means of managing any discomfort.