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Nurses working in primary care have now had confirmation that they face delivering the “most comprehensive flu jab campaign in UK history”, ahead of the coming winter.
The government revealed on Friday it has expanded the cohort for this year’s flu vaccination programme in order to help the NHS cope with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The standout headline is that the vaccine will be extended to those aged 50 to 64. It will also be offered to individuals on the shielded patient list and members of their household, and children in their first year of secondary school.
This, of course, adds to those who already currently qualify for a free jab, including people aged 65 and over, pregnant women, primary school children, and people with certain medical conditions.
The move, trailed around a week earlier by the prime minister, potentially means vaccinating around 30 million people.
“Given the threat posed by Covid-19, it seems a safe bet to assume that uptake of flu vaccine among existing cohorts this year will be higher than previous years”
To put this in context, it represents around half the population of the UK and double the number immunised against flu last year.
Of course, there are other factors to take into consideration. For example, uptake among the over-65s has fluctuated between 71% and 75% over the last two decades since it was introduced.
But, given the threat posed by Covid-19, it seems a safe bet to assume that uptake of flu vaccine among existing cohorts this year will be higher than previous years.
While organisations representing primary care have agreed that the expanded flu vaccine campaign is “sensible” ahead of what could be a very challenging winter for the NHS, there are caveats.
Both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs have said they need to see more detail about how it will be rolled out, alongside assurances that it will be properly resourced.
GP practices will have placed their vaccine orders at the beginning of the year and will now need to amend these upwards – significantly.
The government will also need to guarantee adequate supplies for everyone covered under the extension or face a backlash, as happened last year when there were shortages and delays.
To put things in perspective, vaccine manufacturers had already warned of problems meeting the existing orders this year due to a surge in worldwide demand.
Then there is the added logistical difficulty of ensuring social distancing is maintained and ensuring adequate personal protective equipment supplies.
Moving on to workforce, in March last year, there were just 16,483 whole-time equivalent nurses working in the primary care sector in England.
The sector is already facing recruitment and retention challenges, with a large proportion of practice nurses reaching retirement age and surgeries struggling to attract newly qualified nurses.
So, to put it mildly, there are a number of issues for the government and Public Health England to resolve. And that’s without the possibility of a coronavirus vaccine being ready as well.
The announcement has been made, now we need to see a detailed and deliverable plan for those working in primary care.
That plan must alleviate pressure on services this coming winter, not create an added burden and make things even more difficult for the NHS.