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COVID-19: Flu jab programme expanded to ‘ready NHS’ for second peak

The government has expanded the flu jab programme to “ready the NHS” for winter pressures and a potential second peak of COVID-19 by extending eligibility for free vaccinations.

Pharmacists, GPs and other providers will vaccinate more than 30 million people in England this flu season, the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) said in a statement today (July 24).

People aged 50-64 are now eligible for a free vaccine, with the programme being opened up to this category “later in the year” once the vaccination of patients in the most “at-risk” groups “is well underway”, the DH said.

More details regarding when the programme will open to people over 50 – something the DH said it “will work with clinicians to decide” – will be announced at a later stage and the NHS will get in touch with patients directly to specify where they can get their flu jab.

Other groups that are now eligible for a free flu vaccine include those on the shielded patients list and members of their household and children in year 7. Primary school children were already eligible for a free flu jab.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee told C+D today that pharmacies will offer the service to the same groups that were eligible last year, plus the 50-64 group and the household contacts of shielded patients.

PSNC is working with NHS England and Improvement to “finalise the service specification for this year’s pharmacy flu vaccination service and today’s announcement publicly confirms the two new cohorts which pharmacies will be able to vaccinate”, PSNC director of NHS services Alastair Buxton told C+D.

“Ready NHS”

The flu vaccination programme has been expanded “to ready the NHS  for the risk of a second peak of coronavirus cases, and to relieve winter pressures on A&E and emergency care”, the DH said.

Commenting on the announcement, health secretary Matt Hancock said that “this will be the biggest flu vaccination programme in history and will help protect our NHS as we head into winter”.

Speaking at the National Pharmacy Association virtual conference last week (July 13), Mr Hancock said pharmacies will have an “important role to play” in the rollout of the flu vaccination programme.

NHS medical director for primary care Dr Nikki Kanani said today that community pharmacists and other providers “will be going to great lengths this year to give this vital protection to millions more people in a safe and convenient way”. She urged all eligible patients to get their flu vaccination as soon as possible.

Not enough doses

Amish Patel, superintendent pharmacist at Hodgson Pharmacy in Longfield, Kent told C+D today that he does not think his pharmacy will have enough doses to meet demand and that it is “going to be difficult to estimate [how many doses will be needed] with no previous data”.

“We will need to see the final [service] specification and ensure over-50s come into the pharmacy specification.

“It says that over-50s will be invited later, so hopefully wholesalers will keep stock for us to access, or GP surgeries will share their vaccines,” Mr Patel said.

In June, manufacturer GSK told C+D that demand for flu vaccines for the 2020-21 season will “continue to outpace manufacturing capacity”.

Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) chief executive Leyla Hannbeck told C+D today that AIMp “welcomes the measures to deploy the most ambitious programme of flu vaccination ever seen”. Community pharmacy has “demonstrated that we are very capable of delivering such clinical services”, she said.

However, with only a short time until flu season begins, “pharmacy teams…feel in a state of suspended animation as to the detail or guidance to support procurement or delivery of the service”, Ms Hannbeck added.

NHS England and Improvement wrote to community pharmacies and GP practices in May to ask them to ensure they have enough stock of the recommended adult flu vaccines for the 2020/21 season, as demand is predicted to rise this year due to COVID-19.

Community pharmacies in England delivered 1,524,753 flu vaccines in 2019-20, according to data collated by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee.

Devolved nations

The Scottish government is considering “the best options for expanding eligibility for the seasonal flu vaccine in 2020-2021”, a spokesperson told C+D today.

“We will set this out when we have confidence that there are adequate supplies of vaccines in order to deliver on any commitments we make,” they added.

The Welsh government is also planning to deliver the country's “largest ever” flu vaccination programme so far, with details to be “announced shortly”, a spokesperson told C+D today.

A Department of Health in Northern Ireland spokesperson told C+D today that plans for this year’s flu vaccination programme are “still being finalised and will be announced in due course”.

What do you make of this announcement?

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