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‘Late’ but ‘welcome’: Flu programme start dates announced

Pharmacies will only be able to offer the flu vaccine to some patients from September 1, the government has announced.  

Pharmacies will be able to offer flu vaccines to pregnant women “from September 1”, the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) and UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced in their annual flu letter published yesterday (March 12).

However, the flu program will start from “the beginning of October” for “most adults”, with GPs to bring forward vaccination in “exceptional circumstances” such as the start of immunosuppressive treatment, the government revealed.

The letter confirmed that there are “no changes to the eligible cohorts” or to the adult or children’s vaccines eligible for reimbursement for the upcoming flu season.

It explained that the rollout dates for the 2024/25 season follow advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JVCI) based on evidence that the “flu vaccine’s effectiveness can wane over time in adults”.

It said that the earlier start date for pregnant women particularly aims to protect their baby “in the first few months of life”.

Community Pharmacy England (CPE) said yesterday (March 12) that “the exact starting date [will] be confirmed by NHS England (NHSE) in due course.”

 

Eligibility

 

The letter set out the full eligibility and timings for this year’s flu season:

From September 1 2024:

  • pregnant women

  • all children aged two or three on August 31 2024

  • primary school aged children 

  • secondary school aged children up to year 11

  • all children in clinical risk groups aged from six months to less than 18 years

From October 2024, exact start date to be confirmed by NHSE:

  • those aged 65 years and over

  • those aged 18-65 in clinical risk groups

  • those in long-stay residential care homes

  • carers in receipt of carer’s allowance, or who are the main carer of an elderly or disabled person

  • close contacts of immunocompromised individuals

  • frontline workers in a social care setting without an employer led occupational health scheme

“All frontline health care workers, including both clinical and non-clinical staff who have contact with patients, should be offered flu vaccine from October…as a vital part of the organisations’ policy for the prevention of the transmission of flu”, the letter added. 

However, it said that vaccination of frontline staff in primary care organisations such as pharmacies “ will not be reimbursed and does not qualify for a payment under the NHS flu programme”.

 

“Later than planned”

 

CPE head of service development Rosie Taylor said that that the letter comes “later than planned”.

But she stressed the communication “is welcomed to allow pharmacy owners to finalise their vaccine orders” and encouraged contractors to “make sure they consider the changes to the timing of the service”.

And a spokesperson for the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) said that the body was “delighted” that the government has provided “early clarity…regarding the start date”.

It called for “policymakers to provide as much notice as possible regarding all aspects of the national flu immunisation programme, so providers have sufficient time to prepare”.

“The confusion and uncertainty caused by the last-minute changes to last year’s programme will have undoubtedly played a part in lower uptake rates in 2023/24,” it added. 

 

Flu chaos

 

Sector leaders last year slammed the “shambolic start” to the flu jab programme, after sudden changes to the start dates of the NHS flu and COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.

In August, NHSE said that the launch was “likely to be in October”, not on September 1 as in previous years.

At the time, the CCA warned that the delayed start would lead to the cancelation of “well over 100,000” vaccine appointments already booked for September.

The National Pharmacy Association (NPA) warned that “pre-ordered stock will go to waste” and threatened NHSE with legal action over financial losses caused by the delay.

But NHSE later confirmed that NHS flu jab appointments already booked for September could still go ahead, despite a delayed start to the service that was only communicated to pharmacies days before.

And later that month, the government announced that the program would be brought forward to September 11.

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