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‘Deeply frustrating’: CPE slams frozen flu funding amid possible delays to service

The pharmacy negotiator has criticised a “deeply frustrating” decision to freeze the level of funding for the flu vaccination service for a further year, as well as possible delays to the start of the service.

Community Pharmacy England (CPE) announced on Friday (August 4) that NHS England (NHSE) had published the service specification for the 2023/24 community pharmacy flu vaccination service.


It said that the service fee for the 2023/24 season remains at £9.58 plus the cost of the vaccine and an allowance for VAT on top of this.

CPE told C+D that the rate has remained stuck at pre-pandemic levels and is frozen for the second year running.

Read more: Government extends free flu jab eligibility to secondary school children

In 2019/20, the fee rose 10p to £9.58. The following year saw a one-off increase of 50p to take into account the extra complexities caused by COVID, but the fee has remained unchanged at £9.58 since 2022/23.

When the national service started in 2015/16, the fee stood at £9.14, meaning it has risen only 44p (5%) in eight years.


“Impossible cost increases”


CPE director of NHS services Alastair Buxton warned that it comes as community pharmacy owners are “facing impossible cost increases”.

“It is deeply frustrating that NHSE – which has all the evidence it needs on this – is refusing to recognise this in the flu vaccination fee,” he said.

He added that the negotiator will “continue to make the case…for increased funding for the service in future years”.


October start


Meanwhile, CPE also said that the flu vaccination service is “unlikely” to start on 1 September as in previous years but that NHSE had advised that the launch is “likely to be in October”.

The start date for the service will informed by guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and “may include requirements related to the prioritisation of certain eligible cohorts of patients”, it added.

It will be announced in NHSE’s primary care bulletin, it said.

Read more: Pharmacists told to diversify vax stocks as excess flu deaths hit five-year peak

Mr Buxton said that CPE is “extremely frustrated” by NHSE’s “insistence” that the service specification was changed to allow it to determine the start date for vaccinations rather than the flu service launching on September 1 as in the past.

“We understand there may be a clinical rationale for a delayed start, subject to the advice of the JCVI, but it is not the behaviour of a responsible organisation to impose such a change without adequate prior notice being given to pharmacy owners,” he added.

He said that pharmacy owners should have been given notice of the policy change “last year” so that it could have been reflected in their vaccine orders for the season and their plans for booking advance appointments for September.

Read more: Well Pharmacy launches private flu jab bookings early at £17.99

CPE “strongly objected” to the change when NHSE first proposed it several weeks ago “due to the lack of adequate notice”, Mr Buxton added.

But he said that the commissioner was “not willing to listen to our arguments on the impact it would have on pharmacy owners and their teams, or on the patients who have already booked their vaccination appointments in September”.

An NHSE spokesperson told C+D that “the NHS flu vaccination programme will begin in October based on the latest clinical evidence - it will maximise protection for patients right across the winter months when it is typically colder and viruses are more likely to spread with people spending more time indoors”.

 

They said that NHSE is “working to ensure a growing number of vaccine sites across England offer both flu and COVID-19 vaccines in the same visit, to make it as convenient as possible for people to get life-saving protection from both viruses ahead of winter”.

CPE also set out other “key changes” in the service specification were that:

  • Eligible patient cohorts were amended to remove 50-64-year-olds who are not in “at-risk” groups, as announced in May

  • Contractors must use an “NHS-assured point of care IT system” to make clinical records for the service and submit payment claims, although it said that the “vast majority” of pharmacy teams are already using these systems

Read more: Government scraps free flu jabs for 50-64-year-olds in 2023/24 season

Last month, the government updated its annual flu letter to include secondary school-aged children in its free vaccination programme.


And in June, the government again warned that pharmacies and other NHS contractors should buy their flu vaccine stock from more than one manufacturer "to mitigate against the risk of supply issues" .

Earlier in June, Well Pharmacy launched bookings for its flu vaccination service, opening “earlier than usual” to give people “the best chance to prepare for flu season”.

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