GPs push for high flu jab uptake ahead of tough winter period

GPs have warned that the NHS could face significant problems this winter unless uptake of flu vaccination matches high levels of coverage achieved last year.

Female patient receives flu and COVID-19 vaccines
Flu and COVID-19 jabs coadministered (Photo: Seqirus)

Flu vaccination rates in the 2020/21 season hit 80.9% for patients aged over 65 - up from 72.4% a year earlier. The increased uptake saw almost nine in 10 CCGs achieve the WHO target of 75% uptake last year, compared with less than a quarter in 2019/20.

GPs say flu uptake rates in the current season need to match those seen last year - because more relaxed COVID-19 restrictions have laid the groundwork for a significant resurgence of not only flu, but also other seasonal respiratory illness.

With concerns over rising COVID-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant, plans to accelerate the COVID-19 booster programme could help practices co-administer with flu more effectively because more people are now eligible to receive COVID-19 boosters. The government has also approved a temporary suspension of the 15-minute observation period after COVID-19 jabs, a change that will mean the vaccinations can be administered as rapidly as those for flu.

Flu vaccination

GPs have urged patients to come forward for both flu and COVID-19 vaccination to increase protection - with both likely to be circulating, and given evidence of increased morbidity and mortality among people infected with both at the same time.

Polling carried out in mid-November on behalf of flu vaccine supplier Seqirus found that 85% of people over 50 were aware that they were eligible to receive a flu jab on the NHS. However, data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that although 63% of over-65s had been vaccinated against flu by the end of October this year, among people aged 50-65 just 29% have received a flu jab.

Berkshire GP Dr Ivan Aloysius, a partner at Ringmead Medical Practice in Bracknell, told GPonline that his practice was working hard to drive high uptake of flu jabs this year.

He said practices had seen a resurgence of illnesses including respiratory synctial virus (RSV) over the past year as restrictions eased, and that flu was likely to make a comeback this winter too after being largely suppressed in the 2020/21 season because of social distancing and limits on gatherings alongside high vaccine uptake.

Vaccine uptake

Dr Aloysius said: 'This year, we have a lack of social distancing and we are gathering. So that safeguard is gone. So unless we vaccinate people who are at risk, we are going to see lots of problems.'

The Berkshire GP said GPs had experienced some difficulty in co-administering COVID-19 and flu vaccination - because until the end of November, booster jabs were recommended to be administered six months after patients' second dose.

'Some people in Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) cohorts nine and 10 only received second doses in August or September - so they were not eligible for COVID-19 boosters [when flu vaccination started],' he said.

However the government has backed advice from the JCVI to speed up rollout of COVID-19 boosters amid concern over Omicron - and patients are now being offered a booster just three months after their second dose.

Calls to maintain high rates of flu vaccination this winter come after NHS England unveiled detail of plans to suspend parts of the QOF and other elements of GP workload to help practices focus more on delivering the accelerated COVID-19 booster campaign.

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