Blog: why this year’s flu vaccine programme is different

The flu vaccination is one of the most effective interventions the NHS has to reduce pressure on the health and social care system this winter as it faces the challenges of Covid, winter pressures and flu. An economic analysis of the cost-benefit of the flu vaccination estimates that the averted cost for hospitals could be more than £40 million. There is also emerging evidence that people infected with both flu and Covid-19 are more than twice as likely to die as someone with the coronavirus alone. The government plans to make this year’s flu vaccine programme the biggest ever and has pledged that everyone over 50 can receive the NHS vaccine for the first time.

Earlier this year, the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) foresaw that the need for the flu vaccine programme to be Covid secure would create extra challenges for community pharmacy as providers. We also recognised the urgency of ensuring that as many people as possible in at-risk groups receive the vaccine this year.

We led on cross-sector activity to address anticipated issues with this year’s programme, and brought together NHS England & Improvement, the British Medical Association (BMA) with the community pharmacy sector to discuss the enablers required to make this flu season a success. We agreed that a population health based approach was vital and that our goal was collaboration across Primary Care Networks (PCNs).

The CCA pressed for key changes to this year’s programme, including changes to enable more flexibility in where and how the flu vaccine is administered. In July, we published a policy paper outlining our concerns about this year’s programme in England and why we felt it needed to be delivered differently.

Our work was instrumental in ensuring that people can now receive the flu vaccine during evenings, weekends and in new locations. As well as inside a community pharmacy or care home, from 8 November, people can receive their flu vaccine in England from a pharmacist in:

• Marquees outside the pharmacy premises
• Local village, town or community halls
• Church halls, temples or mosques
• Care homes and in their own homes, and
• Sports halls/stadiums.

One CCA member is already offering a ‘drive through’ flu jab service to its customers. For the first time, NHSE have also used contractual mechanisms to encourage pharmacy and GP practices to work together to deliver the vaccine to over 65s.

We have called for a national public health campaign to ensure the public understand what to expect this year. Public Health England and NHS England hope to reach 30 million people with the advertising for this year’s flu vaccine programme. The government is spending £4 million on this campaign, more than four times its usual spend.

Crucially, we wanted to ensure there would be sufficient flu vaccinations and PPE to be made available to all providers to ensure that everyone in an ‘at-risk’ group can receive the vaccine safely. There has been record demand this year. English community pharmacies have administered more than 1.7 million flu vaccines since the 2020/21 service began in September. This is more than the entire total for last season in just two months and demonstrates how well the public have responded to government messaging about the importance of the vaccine this year.

Source: PSNC data

This increased demand has meant that while many people have been vaccinated already, others have been asked to wait because some providers have used their early supplies of flu vaccine. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has recently published guidance about how community pharmacies can access further vaccine supplies.

We need DHSC to clarify the quantities of vaccines that will be made available to community pharmacies from this month so that we can book patients in for appointments. In addition, we are calling for an early decision on when to start vaccinating people aged 50-64.

The success of this year’s flu vaccine programme reinforces the vital role that community pharmacy teams have played during the pandemic. They can be very proud of how they have contributed to the national effort to protect people from the dual harms of flu and Covid-19 this winter.

The next major national vaccine programme is likely to be a Covid vaccine. Community pharmacy has proven that it can play a vital part in delivering vaccines safely and at scale. We will continue to work with partners across the community pharmacy sector and government to explore how we can support the roll-out of a future Covid vaccine.

Malcolm Harrison

Chief Executive

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