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‘Exceptionally high demand’ for flu vaccine causes supply issues

Pharmacy teams and representative bodies have reported problems sourcing flu vaccines as COVID-19 drives up demand and the NHS free flu vaccine scheme expands.

Supplies of the flu vaccine for the 2020/21 season are “are already running short” in independent pharmacies, due to “exceptionally high demand and the swift response of community pharmacy teams,” the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) said last week (September 25).

The NPA said it is “in dialogue” with the government and NHS officials about “getting supplies to the frontline as a matter of urgency”, and stressed the importance of stocks being replenished to ensure that vulnerable groups can be vaccinated early in the season.

Running out of stock

Pete Horrocks, superintendent pharmacist of the 70-strong Knights Pharmacy chain, said last week (September 23) that his orders for flu vaccines have already been “30% higher this year compared to last”, and that the only flu jabs left are from “residual stocks” being used within the company.

“During the pandemic, I attempted to contact suppliers to increase my orders but was faced with a response that there were no more vaccines available as any surplus had been picked up by central procurement,” Mr Horrocks added.

“After next week, my pharmacy teams will have to start turning patients away, damaging the reputation of our pharmacies in being able to deliver a first-class convenient service,” he said.

These concerns have been echoed by other pharmacy teams. One pharmacist based in the east of England – who wishes to remain anonymous – said their independent pharmacy “cannot get any flu jabs”.

They have been told by wholesaler AAH that the pharmacy “should have ordered” its flu vaccine stock by July and is “unlikely to get any at all now” – causing patients to become frustrated – the pharmacist claimed.

The representative of another pharmacist – who said a number  of their clients have reported issues with flu vaccine stock – told C+D earlier this week (September 30) that one of their clients “tried to place an order on July 24” with AAH, but claimed they were “told that the window for ordering stock had been closed in June”.

“No communication was received from AAH and, to date, they have not been able to obtain any supply whatsoever from [the company],” the representative claimed.

Pharmacies are “nowhere near able to meet demand,” they added.

“If, as the government says, there is plenty of supply out there, we would love to know where it is,” they said.

C+D has contacted AAH for comment.

DH: Flu vaccine delivery is phased

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) explained to C+D last week (Septmber 22) that it has “sufficient vaccine for up to 30 million people to be vaccinated in England”

“Delivery of flu vaccinations is phased over the autumn and into winter, and priority is rightly given to those who are most at-risk with others being asked to wait until later in the year,” they said.  

The DH did not respond to C+D’s question about when pharmacy teams will be able to access its ring-fenced stock . However, it did confirm that it has agreed to procure additional doses of seasonal flu vaccine from manufacturers.

Yesterday (October 1), shadow minister for work and pensions Vicky Foxcroft and Steve McCabe, Labour MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak both submitted written parliamentary questions asking the government about the support available to pharmacies in sourcing enough flu vaccinations to meet this year’s increased demand.

To all questions, four in total, pharmacy minister Jo Churchill responded: “The DH has indicated that it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period. An answer is being prepared and will be provided as soon as it is available.”

“We want to see the issues resolved as soon as possible”

Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp),  confirmed that its members have raised concerns “about the shortage of vaccines”, and said AIMp has been “advised that the DH will receive the stock they have ordered in early November through to the end of December”.

“We want to see the issues regarding the supply of vaccines be resolved as soon as possible to ensure there are no barriers for pharmacy teams to continue offering this great service,” Ms Hannbeck told C+D earlier this week (September 30).

A spokesperson for the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) confirmed to C+D this week (September 30) that demand has “increased considerably” from pre-COVID forecasting due to “heightened awareness of the risk of a co-circulation of flu and COVID-19”, together with “wider public awareness of the benefit of getting the flu vaccine”.

Last week (September 22), CCA members Boots and Lloydspharmacy temporarily closed their online booking systems for flu vaccines due to increased demand.

Have you struggled to source flu vaccinations this year?

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