Britain may be forced to throw away flu jabs because of the decision to delay the drive, pharmacists fear.
Usually the NHS’s annual vaccination drive begins on September 1.
But health chiefs have announced this autumn’s campaign, which has been scaled back massively, won’t kick off until October. Officials are trying to get more clinics ready to offer the flu jab at the same time as Covid vaccines.
Community Pharmacy England, which represents the country’s 11,000 community pharmacies, is now demanding a U-turn on the last-minute delay.
In a letter sent to health ministers Neil O’Brien and Maria Caulfield, the CPE said: ‘We believe it is irresponsible to issue the details of an entirely predictable service – including a substantive change to the start date – so late.’
Flu vaccines will only be offered to over-65s this winter, health chiefs confirmed yesterday. In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites won’t be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic
Officials originally planned to scale back the annual roll-out to only over-65s, despite warnings the ‘short sighted’ move would leave millions vulnerable this winter. But yesterday they also revealed they were gearing up for the immunisation drive to begin in October, a full month later than usual. Pharmacists fear the decision could impact supply by the time the programme kicks off, however
The decision means pharmacies have to rebook appointments, causing ‘distress and frustration’ for hundreds of thousands of patients, it added.
The CPE also warned that pharmacies, who administer the bulk of flu vaccines every winter, may not have the ‘capacity’ to squeeze millions of appointments into one fewer month.
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told MailOnline that the decision to push the roll-out back carried a ‘big risk’ of wastage.
Pre-ordered stock, which must be booked months in advance of the flu jab rollout, may not be used up in the time available.
Dr Hannbeck said: ‘All of this is very last minute.
‘It is unclear why the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and NHS England wait until the last minute to announce their decisions.
‘They never involve us and we are left to deal with last minute planning.
‘If they’ve discovered that it’s better to co administer the flu and Covid vaccines at the same time, then they should communicate that earlier, not at the last hour.
‘This is total disrespect to the already overstretched healthcare professionals who need time to plan.’
Nick Kaye, chair of the National Pharmacy Assocation, said the decision to delay the rollout start date ‘makes no sense’ and throws a ‘previously successful NHS scheme into confusion’.
He added: ‘Millions of people chose to get their flu jabs at a pharmacy last year.
‘If this change goes ahead, thousands of appointments will have to be cancelled and pre-ordered stock will go to waste.
‘Temporary staff who have been appointed to help deliver the service in September will need to be stood down.’
He added: ‘People who want to do the right thing by protecting themselves as soon as possible from this nasty illness now have to wait.
‘NHS England should urgently rethink and reinstate the September start date without delay.’
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at CPE said ‘patients will pay the price’.
He told MailOnline: ‘Common sense must win out and the NHS should reverse this decision to make a major change without having provided adequate advance warning.
‘If they don’t, pharmacies and their patients will pay the price.
‘Time will need to be spent on rebooking appointments and some pharmacies will likely be left with vaccines that they simply cannot use up in the time available.
‘Pharmacies are already under immense pressures and simply cannot afford to pick up the operational and financial pieces from poor NHS decision-making.’
Equally, a delay to the start of the immunisation drive could see more than one million people ‘who pharmacies would otherwise vaccinate in September’ forced to wait longer, he warned.
‘It will inevitably cause a lot of frustration for patients and it will reduce pharmacies’ capacity to provide other important healthcare services,’ he added.
Last week UKHSA analysts estimated Covid positivity rates increased to 5.4 per cent, on the previous week, which itself saw a rise of 3.7 per cent. Leading experts fear the outbreak will continue to pick up pace in the coming weeks as part of the virus’s natural cycle
Officials say they are ‘closely’ monitoring the spread of the virus. The UK however is no longer publishing daily infection numbers because so few tests are being carried out after the pandemic
For those not eligible for a free NHS flu jab, private flu vaccination clinics are offered to adults for as little as £12.
Private clinics will now likely begin their flu jab rollout in line with the NHS service.
The JCVI, which guides ministers on jab rollouts, yesterday published advice setting out who will be eligible for a flu jab and Covid booster.
Millions of under-65s won’t be offered either vaccine.
Only over-65s, younger people in an at-risk group – such as pregnant women – NHS staff, social care workers and residents in care homes for older adults will be invited.
Anyone aged 12 to 64 who lives with someone who is immunocompromised, such as cancer and transplant patients, will also be eligible.
Health experts yesterday called the move ‘short-sighted’ and ‘disparaging’, warning flu and Covid cases could again shoot up before the vulnerable get their top-up jab.
Other top experts, however, insisted the move was sensible as the country adopts to life post-pandemic.
Eligible Brits are expected to be offered both their Covid booster and flu jab at the same appointment, with an injection in each arm where possible, as was done in previous years.
Ineligible people won’t be able to buy coronavirus jabs privately, unlike for flu.
It comes as Covid cases and hospitalisations are already on the rise across Britain, with a new variant taking off.
Eris, or EG.5.1, already makes up one in seven new Covid cases.
However, experts have said it shows no sign of being more dangerous than the other strains circulating, including its ancestor Omicron.
Experts in Australia — where the flu season runs from April to September and typically predicts how it will unfold in the UK — have warned of record cases.
Medics have expressed concern about the impact on children, with around half of cases in children under the age of 15. Youngsters have also accounted for around eight in 10 hospital admissions.
The country is forecast for a similar flu season as was logged in 2019 — which was the biggest on record and more than 300,000 infections were logged.
Rather than a more infectious flu strain, experts have blamed low vaccination uptake in children for leaving them more vulnerable to the virus.
The NHS hasn’t yet confirmed when and how eligible groups will be able to book their appointments for their Covid and flu jabs.
Britons have been asked not to come forward until further information is announced.