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Sector leaders urge ministers to prevent ‘unacceptable’ delayed flu service start

Community pharmacy leaders have joined together to call for an urgent reversal of the decision to delay the start of next season’s flu vaccine service.

Community Pharmacy England (CPE) announced last week (August 4) that the flu vaccination service is “unlikely” to start on September 1 as in previous years and that NHS England (NHSE) had advised that the launch is “likely to be in October”.

But an NHSE spokesperson confirmed to C+D earlier this week that “the NHS flu vaccination programme will begin in October based on the latest clinical evidence”.

The exact start date will be announced in NHSE’s primary care bulletin, according to CPE.

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

In a statement published yesterday (August 9), the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) warned that the delayed start would lead to the cancelation of “well over 100,000” vaccine appointments already booked for September.

CCA head of policy Dr Nick Thayer said that “it is too late to make fundamental changes to the flu programme”, adding that it “risks vaccine uptake while putting intolerable pressure on already stretched pharmacies and pharmacy teams”.

Read more: Pharmacies to be paid £17.12 for co-administering COVID and flu jabs

The membership body warned that “up to 25%” of pharmacy NHS flu vaccines are provided in September and that changes to the launch date will add an “unexpected burden” of a “huge amount of work” for pharmacies.

It called for the decision to be retracted and for “clarity” on the start date as soon as possible, saying that NHSE must “begin the programme as intended at the start of September”.


“Concerted campaign”


It follows a CPE letter sent to pharmacy minister Neil O’Brien and vaccines minister Maria Caulfield this week (August 8), which called for their “urgent intervention” to secure “a reversal of the decision to allow a delay to the commencement of the flu vaccination service”.

The negotiator said that such a reversal would be a “victory for common sense” and warned that “the timely vaccination of around one million people is at stake”.

It also warned that there is a “very real risk” that pharmacy teams will be “unable to manage their workload this winter or recoup the investment they have made sourcing vaccines in good faith”, adding that this is “completely unacceptable and entirely avoidable”.

Read more: ‘Defies logic’: COVID jab fee plummets 25% as service opens to all pharmacies

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at CPE, described the letter as part of a “concerted campaign” to get policymakers to “reverse this decision for the benefit of pharmacies, patients, and their own reputations”.

He called on pharmacists to write to their MPs to “increase the volume of noise they hear on this important issue”.


“Highly demotivating”


National Pharmacy Association (NPA) chair Nick Kaye yesterday (August 9) said that “it makes no sense to throw a previously successful NHS scheme into confusion by delaying the start date”.

He expressed concerns for pharmacies who have already prepared for a September start and said that “if this change goes ahead, thousands of appointments will have to be cancelled and pre-ordered stock will go to waste”.

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

Any temporary staff appointed to help deliver the service in September will also “need to be stood down”, he added.

And he warned that the move is “highly demotivating for hard-pressed pharmacy contractors who have proven themselves to be effective at delivering these important clinical services”.


“Yet another nail driven into our coffin”


Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), this week (August 7) branded the change “ill thought through” and told C+D that her members are “severely worried [given that] the flu vaccination season coincides with a seasonal increase in prescription volumes”.

“It will be very difficult, if not impossible for us to deliver in October, November and December any vaccines that we cannot deliver in September - especially as we are effectively doing it for less payment than last year so we cannot invest more in staff or other costs,” she said.

Dr Hannbeck highlighted that the stagnant flu funding accompanying the late start “is yet another nail driven into our coffin”, warning that “all of our costs are up on last year yet we are expected to deliver a service with no allowance for inflation”.


“Beyond a joke”


Meanwhile, director of Lewis Pharmacy in Devon Martyn Lewis told C+D this week (August 7) that the changes announced last week are “beyond a joke”.

“It's services like flu vaccines that help to keep the rest of the business afloat”, he said.

“If the government…keeps on targeting the areas where actually we get paid a fee that we need to run a service, then I don't see a future,” he added.

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

Mr Lewis highlighted that any changes to the flu service timeline should have been communicated to pharmacists at least a year in advance – effective from next year’s programme rather than this autumn.

“I don't know why we're talking about this delay in August. It's in a matter of weeks' time,” he told C+D.

Both Lloydspharmacy and Well declined to comment on the delay or the price freeze, despite Well opening its flu jab bookings earlier than usual this year. 

The Department of Health and Social Care (DH) also declined, while NHSE did not respond to C+D requests for comment.

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