‘Serious concerns’ over Covid booster rollout as GPs say they can’t afford to offer jabs

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Doctors have raised “serious concerns” about the autumn rollout of Covid boosters as GPs warn a cut in government funding means many can no longer afford to offer jabs.

The UK Health Security Agency announced it will offer a new Omicron-specific jab, by Moderna, to over-50s, as part of its latest vaccination programme due to start in September.

But leaders of major GP practices have told The Independent that reduced funding at a time of rising costs and staff shortages makes the jab “unviable”.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has said it has “serious concerns” about how a drop in GPs offering jabs would affect the vaccination programme and called for the funding to be increased.

The contract for GPs to deliver vaccines this autumn has been cut from £12.58 per dose to £10.06, while a £10 supplement for them to give jabs in care homes and to other vulnerable groups has also been cut.

Dr Michelle Drage, chief executive for Londonwide Local Medical Committees, which represents the majority of the 1,200 GP practices in the capital, warned they do not have the resources to roll out three major vaccination campaigns – Covid, flu and polio– at the same time.

She added: “With the current workforce crisis, there are just not enough GPs and practice nurses to do the day job. Prioritising urgent public health vaccinations means something will have to give between routine appointments and vaccinating several million Londoners at pace.”

Dr Preeti Shukla, BMA general practitioners committee clinical and prescribing policy lead, said the addition of the new Moderna vaccine was great news in the fight against Covid as part of the autumn vaccine campaign to prevent another outbreak in winter.

“However, with the current well-documented pressures on GP practices and the reduction in the funding for delivery of these vaccines, we have serious concerns about the rollout. Payment to GPs for delivery of vaccines has dropped 20 per cent since last year’s rollout while the costs for GP practices have only rocketed in the meantime,” she said.

“This vaccine will require freezing and refrigerating, an ever more expensive operation as energy costs rise. The new Moderna vaccine only strengthens the case for returning payments to last year’s level rather than trying to deliver a booster programme on the cheap.

“GP practices, while glad to hear of a new vaccine to add to their arsenal, will nevertheless be wondering if the numbers add up as they face a difficult autumn and winter.”

As of this month, there are around 1,000 GP-led vaccine sites, 1,400 pharmacy, 128 big centres and 245 hospital hubs.

One leader of several GP practices, covering thousands of patients, said they had to drop out of the autumn programme because the costs were “unviable”.

They said: “We’re not doing Covid vaccinations this autumn, we just can’t make the money work and we’ve not got the reserves to run a large deficit on the work.

“The problem with lower money is that it encourages less going out and getting people in the door. Poorer people and ethnicities with a distrust of state institutions need the NHS to go get them, and that’s not cheap.

“Costs are through the roof, utilities are extortionate and temporary and locum staff are demanding more money. In 2021, during furlough, volunteer staff were easy to get but furlough ended and they went back to work. People are fed up with all the volunteering when their bills are so high. That means more reliance on paid-for staff to do even marshalling jobs.”

The primary care manager also raised concerns over the viability of the polio vaccination programme for children in London, announced by the UK Health Security Agency earlier this month, which means many practices will have more than 1,000 children to vaccinate at the same funding level of £10 per vaccine.

They said announcements of rollouts were a “political gimmick announced by people saying ‘we’re doing something’ without actually checking the capacity to do it”.

It comes as leading scientist John Ball has warned that as the Covid virus evolves, the UK could be left “like the Red Queen in Alice and the Looking Glass – having to keep running just to stay in the same place” as it races to keep up with new variants.

NHS England declined to comment. The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.