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Chaos and confusion: Sector leaders slam ‘shambolic start’ to autumn vaccinations

Community pharmacy leaders have criticised “short notice” changes to the start date of the NHS flu and COVID-19 vaccination services, after the government announced that both programmes would be brought forward.

This week (August 30), the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) announced that the autumn flu and COVID-19 vaccination programmes will now begin "earlier than planned" in England on September 11.

Read more: UPDATED: Government U-turns on October start for flu and COVID-19 vaccinations

The U-turn comes after NHS England (NHSE) announced last month that both NHS vaccinations would be available to residents of older adult care homes from October 2, with appointments to be made available to all other eligible groups the following week from October 7.

The initial delay sparked backlash from community pharmacy leaders, who called for both programmes to start on September 1 as in previous years.

 

“Very chaotic”

 

Alastair Buxton, Community Pharmacy England (CPE) director of NHS services, said that the negotiator “[understands and supports] the clinical need for the accelerated booster campaign” but warned that it “has been a shambolic start to the winter vaccination programme”.

“It simply isn’t efficient for pharmacies or other providers to work to a seemingly endlessly changing timetable,” he added.

Read more: UPDATED: NPA threatens NHSE with ‘compensation claims’ over delayed flu programme

In a Tweet posted after the announcement, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) Dr Leyla Hannbeck echoed Mr Buxton’s concerns, calling NHSE’S communication on the programmes “very chaotic”.

She highlighted that the “last-minute” changes “put extra pressure on pharmacy teams and lead to confusion for patients”.

 

“Policy to-ing and fro-ing”

 

Mr Buxton said that the new date means that “time is now incredibly tight for pharmacy teams to prepare for the start of the season”.

He called for better organisation, warning that the “policy to-ing and fro-ing that we have seen this year must not be repeated”.

Read more: Contractors reluctant to offer COVID-19 jabs after fee slashed, C+D survey finds

Tase Oputu, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in England, also demanded better planning.

She said that the “short notice changes” to the start date for the autumn programmes have “created confusion for pharmacy teams trying to make plans and for the public”.

“The government must plan ahead more decisively next year to avoid such uncertainty,” she added.

 

“Uncertainty has plagued the programme”

 

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), called the last few weeks “a turbulent period for the vaccination programme”.

“Longstanding plans have been tested and uncertainty has plagued the programme”, he said.

And Mr Harrison urged the government to “review again the resource it puts into the vaccination programmes” given the “growing risk to public health”.

Read more: UPDATED: Pharmacy flu jab appointments already booked for September 'can go ahead’

Meanwhile, National Pharmacy Association (NPA) chair Nick Kaye said that the accelerated start date is “welcome” after a “stumbling start to the flu and COVID campaign”.

Last week, the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) threatened NHSE with legal action over financial losses caused by the delay to the start of this year’s flu programme.

NHSE declined to comment.

The DH this week said that the new September start date is a “precautionary measure following the identification of a new COVID variant”.

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

 

It follows the UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA) latest risk assessment on COVID-19 variant BA.2.86, which was first detected in the UK on August 18 and displays a “high number of mutations”, it added.

 

COVID-19 vaccinations are now due to start on September 11, with those living in adult care homes and those “most at risk” the first to receive vaccines and the annual flu vaccine to be made available to vulnerable groups “at the same time wherever possible”, the DH said.

 

NHSE had last month issued a partial reversal of the decision to delay the start of flu vaccinations until October, confirming that NHS flu jab appointments that had already been booked for September could still go ahead, despite a delayed start to the service that was only communicated to pharmacies days before.

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