While many of us are only just back to school and work after the summer holidays, thoughts have already turned to protection against winter viruses as the annual COVID-19 and flu vaccine programme has been brought forward this year thanks to the circulation of a new variant of coronavirus.
The NHS flu vaccine is offered every year to help protect people from getting seriously ill during the winter months.
You'll need to meet certain requirements to get the free vaccine and certain groups are prioritised, but for those not eligible Boots have revealed they will also be offering a private flu jab service.
Appointments for the free NHS flu vaccinations are also available from today (September 11 2023) at Boots.
Here's everything you need to know about the NHS' winter programme from who is eligible to where to get vaccinated.
Read the latest on the flu vaccine and COVID-19
Should we wear masks again? Covid guidelines experts recommend (The Independent, 4-min read)
‘Surge’ booster plan to tackle ‘most concerning Covid variant since omicron’ (The Telegraph, 3-min read)
Differences between flu and COVID-19 symptoms as vaccine drive brought forward (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)
Why is a flu vaccine important?
The NHS says the flu vaccination is important because, while flu is unpleasant for most people, it can be dangerous and even life threatening for some people, particularly those with certain health conditions.
"The best time to have your flu vaccine is in the autumn or early winter before flu starts spreading," the site adds. "But you can get your vaccine later."
The government outlines some further reasons why the flu vaccine is so important:
Flu is a highly infectious disease with symptoms that come on very quickly.
Flu viruses can change from one winter to the next, but vaccines are updated for each winter to give protection against the strains of flu that are most likely to be going around.
Protection from flu vaccination goes down with time so even if some of the strains are the same you should have a flu vaccine again each flu season.
Who can get the flu vaccine
The official list of who can get the flu vaccine for free on the NHS includes adults who:
The flu vaccine is given free on the NHS to adults who:
are 65 and over (including those who will be 65 by 31 March 2024)
have certain health conditions
are in long-stay residential care
receive a carer's allowance, or are the main carer for an older or disabled person who may be at risk if you get sick
live with someone who is more likely to get a severe infection due to a weakened immune system, such as someone living with HIV, someone who has had a transplant, or is having certain treatments for cancer, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
those aged 6 months to under 65 years in clinical risk groups (as defined by the Green Book, chapter 19 (Influenza))
all children aged two or three years on 31 August 2023
school-aged children (from Reception to Year 11)
those in long-stay residential care homes
carers in receipt of carer’s allowance, or those 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
If you're eligible for the flu vaccine, the NHS will let you know when you can get it, but the health service is asking that people are waited to be invited.
While all adult flu vaccines are given by injection into the muscle of the upper arm, children's vaccines are administered via a nasal spray.
Watch: Debunked: Flu vaccines don't increase Strep A infections
When is the flu vaccine rolled out?
The flu and COVID-19 vaccine programme was due to start from early October to maximise protection for patients right across the winter months.
Now with the increased risks presented by the new COVID-19 variant BA.2.86, those eligible for both flu and COVID-19 can be vaccinated from 11 September.
Flu vaccine for serious long-term health conditions
The flu vaccine is also offered for free for anyone with the below conditions:
respiratory conditions, like asthma
heart conditions, like coronary heart disease
being very overweight
chronic kidney disease
liver disease, like hepatitis or cirrhosis
some neurological conditions, like Parkinson's disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy.
a learning disability
problems with your spleen, like sickle cell disease
a weakened immune system as a result of certain conditions
For more information see the full list of conditions here and talk to your doctor if you have a long-term illness you can't spot, and they can determine whether you are at risk of serious problems from flu. If you are, you should be offered the jab.
Who shouldn't have the flu vaccine?
Most adults can have the flu vaccine, but if you have had a serious allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in the past the NHS suggests you should avoid it.
If you have an egg allergy the health service says you may be at risk of an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine as some flu vaccines are made using eggs.
Ask a GP or pharmacist for a low-egg or egg-free vaccine.
If you're ill with a high temperature, it's best to wait until you're better before having the flu vaccine.
Where to get the flu vaccine
You can have the NHS flu vaccine at:
your GP surgery
a pharmacy offering the service – if you're aged 18 or over
some maternity services if you're pregnant
For more information on who can have the flu vaccine, see the NHS website page on flu vaccines.
For information on the vaccine for children see the NHS website page on children's flu vaccines.