With around eight weeks to go until the 2020 flu campaign - a programme that could be crucial to limiting pressure on the NHS in the event of a second wave of COVID-19 - GPs have demanded clarity to help them plan.
NHS England suggested last month that additional cohorts could be added to the flu vaccination programme for 2020/21 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and take-up is expected to be higher than usual because of health fears sparked by the virus.
NHS officials told GPs last week to plan on ordering vaccines 'to maximise take up and deliver the programme in the usual way', but admitted detail on possible expansion of at-risk groups was still not available.
Uncertainty around this year's flu programme has left some GPs unsure of how many vaccine doses to order - amid concerns that supply could be affected if all practices rush at once to order extra stocks when an announcement is made.
Meanwhile, vaccines manufacturer Seqirus - which produces the adjuvanted (aTIV) FLUAD vaccine recommended for patients aged over 65 - confirmed to GPonline that it is seeing high demand this year and expects to deliver ‘more vaccines than ever before’ in the UK.
Doctors are clear that this year's flu campaign is crucial - an ineffective flu vaccination programme could lead to hospitals being overwhelmed this winter in the event of a second wave of coronavirus infection.
Newham GP Dr Farzana Hussain told GPonline that surgeries needed to be informed of plans quickly to ensure an effective flu campaign.
Primary care plans
She said: ‘We’re at the end of June, we need to get this out for September. So we have eight weeks and we don’t even know how much stock we need. So it’s a bit of a faff, we almost needed the announcement on Monday.
‘I don’t know how much to order because I don’t know who the new cohort is, so I’m working in the dark. And we’ll all be ordering at the same time because we will suddenly all find out and get straight on the phone.
‘Even with the existing cohort I’m going to be short... I don’t know how we are going to supply everybody.’
Dr Hussain said it was important that GPs were able to get on top this year’s flu programme to protect hospitals. ‘The last thing we need is COVID resurgence and flu, people getting flu and going into hospital, we’ll collapse the NHS… that’s my big concern,’ she said.
Preparing for winter
Watford GP Dr Simon Hodes agreed that GPs had to be informed about 2020/21 plans sooner rather than later as surgeries anticipate ‘much better uptake’ of flu vaccinations.
He said: ‘We are planning for a potential second wave of coronavirus that may or may not come. This is not unlikely as coronavirus is still circulating in the UK and the test and trace system is not working perfectly yet.
'If there is a second wave in the winter months we must try and protect the NHS - which has been the government mantra all along. An important way to protect the NHS is the seasonal flu vaccine - so we need to make sure that it’s well organised and well taken up this year.'
Seqirus UK head Helen Concilia said the company was experiencing 'high demand' for influenza vaccines. She said: 'In the UK, we expect to be delivering more vaccines than ever before. We are actively consulting with public health partners, primary care, DHSC, the NHS and other stakeholders.'
NHS England director for primary care strategy Ed Waller told GPs on 18 June that there was no update on whether the flu cohort would be expanded.
He said: ‘The letter gives most of the details of the flu programme. It does point though to the possibility that there could be additional cohorts added to the programme and as soon as we hear what the decision is we will be communicating it to people in the usual way.’
‘In the meantime, you should be planning on ordering vaccines to maximise take up and deliver the programme in the usual way.'