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The government has today revealed details of what it claims to be the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in the UK’s history, with a doubling in the number of people eligible for the jab.
Under the plans, new groups, including those shielding from coronavirus and members of their household, will be eligible for a free vaccine.
“This winter more than ever, with Covid-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks”
With Covid-19 still in circulation, the government said this year’s campaign would be particularly vital to protect the most vulnerable and help the NHS cope with winter pressures.
Today, the government has announced plans to vaccinate more than 30 million people during this flu season – around double of those that were vaccinated last year.
Among those who currently qualify for a free jab are people aged 65 and over, pregnant women, primary school children, and people with certain medical conditions who would be vulnerable if they caught flu.
But now, under the new campaign, the free flu vaccination offer will also be extended to those aged over 50 to 64.
In addition, individuals who are on the shielded patient list, in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and members of their household, will also be invited for a free flu vaccine. Students in their first year of secondary school will also now be eligible for the free offer.
The government highlighted that all front line health and social care workers would also be urged to take up their free vaccine to protect themselves and their patients or residents from the flu.
The programme will begin by focusing on the most ‘at-risk’ groups, before the Department of Health and Social Care will then work with clinicians to decide when to start inviting people aged 50-64.
Under the campaign, the NHS will contact people directly and inform individuals on where to go to get the vaccine.
“We are now taking another important step to help protect the wider public by giving the flu vaccination to more people than ever before”
Proposals to extend the rules for those who are eligible for a free flu vaccination as part of the annual campaign have been underway for the past few months.
The vaccination programme is mostly delivered by practice nurses.
The government said that the expanded programme was part of plans to help ready the health service for both the risk of a second peak of Covid-19 and to relieve winter pressures on accident and emergency services.
The details issued today come after prime minister Boris Johnson pledged an additional £3bn to the NHS in England to help it prepare for a potential second Covid-19 spike at the end of last week.
Speaking at a press briefing on 17 July, Mr Johnson said that during what was already traditionally a challenging time of the year for clinicians, there was a chance Covid-19 would become “more virulent” in the colder months.
The new funding would also allow the NHS to continue to use the additional hospital beds acquired from the independent sector and through the opening of new Nightingale Hospitals until the end of March 2021.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “It’s mission critical that we pull out all the stops to get ready for winter, and the prime minister has already announced £3bn to protect the NHS.
“We are now taking another important step to help protect the wider public by giving the flu vaccination to more people than ever before.”
He described the campaign as the “biggest flu vaccination programme in history”, adding it would “help protect our NHS as we head into winter”.
Mr Hancock all those eligible for a free vaccine to take up the offer, “not just to protect yourself, but to protect the NHS and your loved ones, from flu”.
Every year eligible groups are urged to get their free vaccine, but the government stressed this year was particularly vital because of Covid-19.
Chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty 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.”
In 2019, the programme was extended to include all primary school aged children for the first time. This year the government has gone a step further by expanding the offer to year 7 secondary school children.
Dr Nikki Kanani, GP and NHS medical director for primary care, stressed the importance of individual’s taking up the flu vaccine to help alleviate pressure on front line staff.
Meanwhile, Dr Vanessa Saliba, head of flu at Public Health England, added: “The flu vaccine is the best defence we have against what can be a serious and even deadly illness.”
Dr Graham Jackson, senior clinical advisor at the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said the campaign’s success would be “more crucial than ever before”.
“The decision to expand the free availability of the vaccine to protect vulnerable people is welcome and we would encourage all health and care staff to be vaccinated where appropriate,” he said.
But he said more details were needed about the extra funding for primary care to help administer the “biggest and most comprehensive flu campaign that this country has ever seen”.
“GP practices, primary care networks and other providers will want assurances that more vaccine will be available to match demand,” said Dr Jackson.
He added: “Extra supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) will also be needed.”
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, responding to the government’s flu programme announcement, said: “Flu, alongside a second Coronavirus wave, could be devastating.”
He said the move was welcomed but restated his party’s call for free flu vaccinations for the over 50s this winter.
He added: “We will do all we can locally and nationally to encourage take up of the flu vaccine.”