GPs expect major COVID vaccination role as soon as first doses are ready

GPs are expecting to be heavily involved in delivering COVID-19 vaccination in England as soon as doses become available - despite suggestions from health and social care secretary Matt Hancock that mass vaccination sites and hospitals would deliver 'the bulk of the campaign this year'.

Coronavirus vaccine plans (Photo: Radoslav Zilinsky/Getty Images)
Coronavirus vaccine plans (Photo: Radoslav Zilinsky/Getty Images)

At a Downing Street briefing on 20 November, Mr Hancock said: 'The NHS is in the process of establishing vaccination centres across the country that can manage the logistical challenge of needing to store the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at -70 degrees.

'In addition it is establishing vaccination hubs in hospitals for NHS staff. These two routes are likely to comprise the bulk of the campaign this side of the new year. Then there will be a community rollout involving GPs and pharmacists.'

However, GP leaders have told GPonline they expect general practice to be heavily involved in delivering the NHS COVID-19 vaccination campaign as soon as the first doses become available - potentially from early next month.

COVID-19 vaccination

Senior GPs say that with the exception of NHS staff in hospitals, they expect 'most of' the priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) as first in line for COVID-19 vaccination to be covered by general practice.

However, the BMA's GP committee chair has warned that officials may need to consider more flexibility around the running order in which patients are vaccinated to ensure all available doses can be usedm, because of complications around vaccine storage and transport.

The JCVI has said care home residents and staff will be first in line for vaccination, with health and care staff and patients aged over 80 to follow next.

Guidance published by NHS England last month said 'general practice will have a particularly important role to play in contributing to administering vaccinations to "at risk" patients, care home residents and staff, those aged 50 and older as well as general practice and other primary care staff and care home staff workers'.

GP role

Wessex LMCs chief executive Dr Nigel Watson told GPonline: 'Of course GPs will be involved. We are expecting general practice to need to deliver the vaccine as soon as it becomes available.'

Dr Watson said that in most areas he had spoken to, GPs would be heavily involved in delivering vaccinations in care homes. He pointed out that it made sense for practices to deliver vaccinations to care homes because each care home was aligned with a practice.

In his area, Dr Watson said looking at groups identified as the first priority by the JCVI, 'most of that will be delivered by general practice working with our community colleagues'.

He said GPs were expecting to cover care homes, with community nursing staff likely to go out to deliver vaccination for housebound patients, and then over-80s would 'largely be for general practice'.

Dr Watson pointed out that mass vaccination centres were initially being established in each of England's 42 strategic health partnership areas - and that it was difficult to imagine older people travelling long distances to these sites.

Care home patients

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline he also could not imagine over-80s or care home residents being vaccinated by anyone other than general practice - but he warned that the regulatory process around the vaccines was 'the big unknown'.

He said: 'Once we know what vaccine is approved, and the logistics, there will be a greater opportunity for clarity around how it can be delivered. The challenges around the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are clearly more significant.'

UK Vaccine Taskforce chair Kate Bingham told MPs earlier this year that as many as 10m doses of the vaccine - which has now formally reported trial data to the MHRA for approval - could be available this year.

But Dr Vautrey warned: 'We don't know how quick the vaccine will come through and in what quantity. The intention is to provide the vaccine to the most vulnerable people at the earliest opportunity but that will be predicated on logistics and requirements around how it works.'

The BMA chair suggested Mr Hancock's comments may have been intended to 'dampen expectation' around a large-scale rollout of vaccine this year. But he added that GPs were ready to deliver vaccines at the earliest opportunity.

Dr Watson said all but two out of more than 400 practices represented by Wessex LMCs had indicated they would sign up to an enhanced service deal to deliver COVID-19 vaccination.

NHS officials are in the process of approving 'designated' sites for primary care to deliver vaccines in each primary care network area across England, with most  PCNs expected to have one site initially, but with rollout to further sites planned in future.

A letter from NHS England to NHS organisations on Friday urged all NHS employers to ensure that staff flu vaccinations were complete by the end of November so that they were ready to receive a COVID-19 jab as soon as possible, with a gap of around one week expected to be needed between the two.

The letter says funding has been distributed to NHS regional teams to support preparations for COVID-19 vaccination rollout.

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