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Flu vaccines will be given to millions more people this winter, the UK government has announced, in what it has called “the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in the UK’s history”. But whether GPs and pharmacists are ready for the huge undertaking is another question altogether.
A free flu vaccine will be made available to around 30 million people, including those on the shielded patient list and members of their households; all school year groups up to year 7; as well as pregnant women and those with pre-existing conditions.
Those aged 50 to 64 years-old will also be invited for a free jab later in the flu season, the government said, but GPs have expressed concerns they won’t have enough supply – or staff – to realistically implement the expansion, especially during a pandemic.
Dr Steve Kell, managing GP partner at Larwood Health Partnership, tells HuffPost UK: “GPs are facing a real challenge in winter with flu/Covid as well as financial and workforce uncertainty.
“Most have been told we can’t order more vaccines and practices are going to have to work out how to deliver vaccines safely.”
There are concerns that Covid-19 will present challenges to delivering the flu programme. GPs will need to take special measures to ensure all patients are safe when they go to get their vaccination – particularly those in at-risk groups.
They will also need to ensure there are enough vaccines to go around. Many GP surgeries had to order in flu vaccines back in January ready for this winter.
Dr Kell worries that GPs will now be scrabbling around to get sufficient stock in place ready for flu season, which can occur as early as October but tends to peak between December and March. “Everyone will be trying to find more,” he says.
If a Covid-19 vaccination is made available for use, delivery of this would also need to be factored in, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said.
Dr Maz Sangha, a GP at St Johns Medical Centre in Altrincham, says he is concerned about the planning that’s required for the increased numbers that need vaccinating, while also maintaining social distancing.
“Patients will want the vaccine as soon as possible and will not want to wait, especially if a second wave is occurring,” he says. “We have been told just this morning that for the new cohort – 50- to 64-year-olds – we will need to order vaccines from a central separate body, but no detail [as of yet].”
He is concerned that telling this group to wait for their vaccines until the at-risk patients have been vaccinated will be “hard to handle” and “cause stress” to patients and those working in primary care.
In general, the extended flu vaccination programme has been welcomed, particularly as the NHS needs all the support it can get due to the risk of a second peak of coronavirus cases – and to relieve winter pressures on A&E and emergency care.
While the vaccine can’t protect you against Covid-19, it’s thought if plenty of people have the flu jab this autumn, it will help the NHS cope better through the winter months, reducing flu cases and possibly even deaths.
There were 15m people vaccinated in England during the last flu season, according to Public Health England (PHE).
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 £3bn 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.”
This year’s vaccination programme will occur in two stages: most at-risk groups will be prioritised first, and then people aged 50 to 64 will be invited for their free vaccine later on. The NHS will contact people directly, including information about where to go to get the vaccine. Dr Nikki Kanani, GP and NHS medical director for primary care, urged those eligible to take up the offer of the free vaccine when the time comes.
Dr Vanessa Saliba, head of flu at Public Health England (PHE), said: “By getting the jab, you can help protect yourself, your family and the NHS – it will help save lives.”
While the extension to the flu programme is “sensible” as we prepare the NHS for a busy winter and potential second wave, Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) says the GPs who will be delivering the majority of vaccinations now 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,” he says.
“We also need assurance that the government can guarantee adequate supply for everyone covered under the extension.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed it has secured additional supply of flu vaccine in the expectation of increased uptake among at-risk groups and to meet demand from the programme’s expansion.
It said guidance has been issued to GPs and pharmacists to ask that they review their flu vaccines orders, so that those who are eligible can be vaccinated.
Providers should use their own locally procured stock in the first instance, DHSC said, and further information on how to access the additional stock that it has ordered in will be issued in September.
Seqirus, one of the flu vaccine providers in the UK, told HuffPost UK it is “on track” to deliver on its commitment to supply flu vaccines for the upcoming season, “which is larger than last year’s supply and includes additional doses to meet the government’s initiative to make influenza vaccine available to more people than before”.
Sanofi Pasteur, another UK vaccine provider, said it “fully supports” the UK government’s announcement and has increased flu vaccine production to bring in “millions of additional doses this season”.
“The vaccination programme will be staggered throughout the season, which we strongly support, starting with those most vulnerable and later vaccinating extended populations to protect as many people as possible,” a spokesperson said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.