UK gearing up for 'biggest flu vaccination programme in history'

Britain is preparing the ‘biggest flu vaccination programme in history’ to ease the burden of a second wave of Covid-19 in winter, Health Secretary Matt Hancock says

  • Experts have warned that a flu outbreak in winter could wreak havoc on the NHS
  • Ministers want to immunise as much Britons as possible to free up hospital beds
  • They are rumoured to have bought an extra 10million vaccine doses this year 

Ministers are preparing to roll out the ‘biggest flu vaccination programme in history’, the Health Secretary promised today.

Matt Hancock claimed Number 10 had procured enough jabs to vaccinate a record-breaking number of Britons on the NHS this winter.

Experts have warned that a flu outbreak in the colder months could wreak havoc on the NHS, if it coincides with a rise in coronavirus cases.

Ministers want to immunise as many Britons against the flu as possible to reduce the number of patients needing hospital beds in case of another wave.

Downing Street is rumoured to have bought an extra 10million vaccine doses, and is contemplating dishing them out to all Brits over the age of 50.

Free flu jabs are usually reserved for over-65s, pregnant women, children and people with serious illnesses like asthma or heart or kidney disease.

Leading charities praised the move to scale-up the vaccination scheme but wanted reassurances about how the vaccines will be accessed in a ‘Covid safe way’.

Ministers are preparing to roll out the biggest flu vaccination programme in history (stock image)

Matt Hancock said the Government had procured enough jabs to vaccinate a record-breaking number of Britons on the NHS this winter

Speaking at the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) virtual conference today, Mr Hancock said: ‘We all know that having had an incredibly hard six months the next big moment is as winter approaches.

‘We are currently planning in detail for winter. We are expecting high demand. We want the flu vaccine programme to be the biggest flu vaccine programme in history.

‘We have procured enough vaccine to be able to deliver on that, but then it’s a big task.’ 

However, Mr Hancock did not reveal how many extra jabs had been bought or who would be offered a vaccine. 

Last winter 25million people in England were offered the flu jab, with officials expanding the annual vaccination programme to include all Year Six children for the first time.

All over-65s, pregnant women, NHS workers and people with serious long-term illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s are eligible for the free jab.

In 2020/21 groups eligible for the NHS funded flu vaccination programme are currently the same as last year.

This includes:

  • Over-65s and people with diabetes and chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma;
  • People with serious heart or kidney disease, or people undergoing cancer treatment;
  • Parents with children aged over six months with asthma or diabetes or weakened immunity due to disease or treatment;
  • Other groups include residents in long-stay care homes and people who have lowered immunity due to HIV or are on steroid medication;
  • NHS workers are also urged to get a free flu jab in order to protect patients.

But according to a joint letter issued from the DHSC, Public Health England and, NHS England and Improvement, on May 14, the list may change if the programme is expanded this year.

This could include:

  • All children aged two to 10 years old (but not 11 years or older);
  • Those aged six months to under 65 years in clinical risk groups;
  • Close contacts of immunocompromised individuals;
  • Health and social care staff employed by a registered residential care home;

The letter added: ‘We anticipate that concerns about COVID-19 may increase demand for flu vaccination in all groups this year.’

Figures show there are around 10million people aged between 50 and 65 in the UK, meaning the vaccination scheme would have to increase by 40 per cent in size to catch all of them. 

The flu jab — designed to fight off four different strains of influenza expected to circulate — offers no protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.

Experts say the point of rolling out more flu jabs is to ease the burden on the health service, which Number 10 feared could have been overwhelmed in the first wave.

Most people who get the flu escape with only a mild illness but patients struck down with a severe bout can be hospitalised. Seasonal flu has a mortality rate of around 0.1 per cent.

One government adviser — Imperial College London’s Professor Peter Openshaw — has raised the idea of flu shots for the entire population in April, saying it was ‘something to be considered’.

Professor Openshaw, part of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), said a bad flu season with coronavirus ‘would be a huge burden on the NHS’.

Sarah MacFadyen, head of policy and public affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: ‘We welcome this ambitious plan from the government, but we urgently need more information on how this will be rolled out. Flu season is fast approaching and healthcare professionals must be given time to prepare.

‘We know that uptake of the flu vaccine amongst people with lung conditions is much too low, with less than half of eligible people in this group getting the jab last year. Increasing uptake amongst at risk groups is vital to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

‘To achieve this the government needs to ensure people can easily access the flu jab and that the message of how important it is to get vaccinated reaches as many people as possible. Everyone, especially people with lung conditions, must also be reassured the jab can be delivered in a Covid-safe way.’

The tell-tale symptoms of Covid-19 — a fever, cough and the loss of smell or taste — could be mistaken for the flu, which has similar effects and is much worse than a common cold. 

This could cause confusion among the population. If they have the coronavirus, they may think they only have the flu if they have not been given a vaccine to protect them. 

And dishing out the flu vaccine — which only 70 per cent of eligible NHS staff accepted last year — could prevent thousands of people from needing NHS treatment. 

During the peak of Britain’s coronavirus crisis, around 3,500 people were being admitted to hospital with Covid-19 each day. The disease is estimated to be up to eight times deadlier than flu.

Studies have suggested any second wave will be deadlier than the first, adding to data showing the second bout of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was much more lethal than its predecessor.

Britain’s first wave has fizzled out but the infection is still circulating. Nearly 43,000 people have died after testing positive for the disease — but other grim figures show the real death toll is closer to 55,000.

Imperial College London modelling warned the death toll could have been closer to 500,000, had ministers let the virus spread uncontrollably through the nation.

Infectious disease experts say that because so few Britons have been struck down with Covid-19, which began to spiral out of control in the UK in March, the threat of a second wave is real.

Britain is also currently nowhere near having herd immunity to the coronavirus, with government testing surveys suggesting 5.4 per cent of people in England have had the illness.

This is equal to around 3.02million people. Sixty per cent coverage — thought to be the amount of the population needed for herd immunity — would be the equivalent of 33.6million people across the country.

Cold and flu viruses are known to thrive in the winter — and scientists fear the coronavirus may also prove to be more of a problem in the colder months.

Experts are cautious about whether Covid-19 poses a bigger threat in the winter, however. The disease has only been known to science for six months, meaning little is yet known about the pathogen.

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