All adults over 50 and children in the first year of secondary school in England will be offered a free flu vaccination this autumn in a campaign to try to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed in the event of a second Covid-19 wave.
In a bid to escape the nightmare scenario of a bad flu season alongside a resurgence of the coronavirus, the government has successfully secured contracts for 30 million doses of flu vaccine, double the number that were administered last year.
The biggest issue is likely to be ensuring the jabs go to those who most need them. Healthcare workers, who are always offered a flu vaccination, have not always taken it up in past years. Meanwhile, government health advisers do not want fit and healthy 51-year-olds to rush to get vaccinated until they are sure that there is good take-up amongst the older people and those with underlying health conditions, who are likely to do worse if they contract either disease.
“It’s mission critical that we pull out all the stops to get ready for winter, and the prime minister has already announced £3 billion to protect the NHS,” said health secretary Matt Hancock.
“We are now taking another important step to help protect the wider public by giving the flu vaccination to more people than ever before. This will be the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and will help protect our NHS as we head into winter.
“If you are eligible for a free vaccine, whether it’s for the first time or because you usually receive one, then I would urge you to get it, not just to protect yourself, but to protect the NHS and your loved ones, from flu.”
Flu vaccination is already offered to all children aged two and three, and all primary school children, but now will be extended to those in the first year of secondary school in order to protect the older and more vulnerable people in their families.
Among adults, priority will be given to all those aged 65 and over, pregnant women, people with underlying health conditions and health and social care staff, as it is now. Anyone living in the household of somebody on the Covid-19 shielding list will also be invited to get a jab. After that will come a phased call-up for other adults over the age of 50.
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, stressed the harm flu can do. “Flu can have serious consequences and vulnerable people can die of it. Having the vaccine protects you, and helps reduce transmission to others,” he said.
“This winter more than ever, with Covid-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks. Vaccinating more people will help reduce flu transmission and stop people becoming ill.”
Vaccination will not be made mandatory for health and social care workers, even though substantial numbers every year do not have a jab. Last winter, 74% of frontline health workers were vaccinated, but in some regions there appears to be greater reluctance than in others – as few as 66% in the south west had a flu jab. In a bid to increase the rates in recent years across England, vaccination stalls were set up in hospital reception areas, to catch staff on the way in and out.
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Government sources say the UK has secured sufficient supplies of the latest flu vaccine, even though many other countries will also have been buying up stocks. None of the vaccine will be delivered until September, however, and it then arrives in batches. Most years GP surgeries experience temporary shortfalls at times until new stocks come in. Vaccination will go on throughout the autumn and even into late December if necessary.
The Local Government Association urged the government to consider giving everybody a flu jab. “It is absolutely critical that all our health and care workers get themselves vaccinated, to protect both themselves and the people they look after including our elderly and most vulnerable, from a potentially devastating second wave of infections,” said Paulette Hamilton, vice chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board.
“Councils’ directors of public health should oversee the wider rollout of the flu jab in their areas in order to use their local knowledge and expertise to ensure as many people as possible can get themselves vaccinated.”