The delay leaves GP practices scrambling to cancel vaccination appointments just days before the start of what will be the UK's largest ever flu vaccination campaign.
Disruption to flu vaccine deliveries comes at a time when practices are already facing unprecedented workload - and adds to confusion over how the seasonal influenza campaign will fit around a possible COVID-19 booster rollout. Delays to flu jab supplies have also come as the NHS faces a chronic shortage of blood tubes that has forced GPs to cancel all but essential tests.
In a letter from Seqirus - the UK's largest supplier of flu vaccines - seen by GPonline, practices have been advised not to re-book clinics until they receive a further update confirming a new date on which they can expect a delivery of vaccine.
Flu vaccine delay
The letter confirms that 'unforeseen road freight challenges' - interpreted by at least one GP as a reference to the national shortage of HGV drivers that has disrupted deliveries across a range of industries - are behind the delay.
Seqirus UK and Ireland cluster head Helen Concilia told GPonline: 'Due to unforeseen challenges linked with road freight delays, we have informed all our customers of a consequent delay to their scheduled vaccine delivery by a maximum of one to two weeks.
'Seqirus is working hard to resolve the delay to allow customers to reschedule their influenza vaccination clinics.'
The letter from Seqirus - which delivers to all GP practices in England and Wales - acknowledges that they could be forced to reschedule planned flu vaccination clinics, and promises to send a 'delivery note' seven days before each practice's new delivery date. Practices will then be contacted 48 hours before their new delivery date to confirm a time - with a further update confirming a two-hour timeslot on the day.
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey warned flu vaccine delays would affect 'a significant proportion of practices' and have a serious impact on practice workload and on patients.
He said it was 'incredibly concerning' that the causes of the problem were similar to those behind the blood tube shortage, demanding: 'Ministers must act.'
He said: 'Many practices will have spent the last few days and weeks meticulously planning for their flu vaccination programme, inviting and booking patients in for their jabs, only now to have to contact them all again to cancel or reschedule appointments.
'This causes a huge increase in staff’s already unsustainable workloads, and inconvenience and unneeded anxiety for patients who will be keen to be protected ahead of winter. This is on top of the chaos already being caused by the shortage of blood test bottles, which is leaving hardworking doctors and practice teams bearing the brunt of understandable frustrations from patients when the problem is well outside of their control.'
GPs reacted on social media with alarm after receiving letters confirming the vaccine delivery delay.
Hmm. Flu vaccine delivery delayed due to national shortage of lorry drivers. FFS,— GPforhire (@GPforhire) September 3, 2021
When your flu jab delivery is delayed by 2 weeks— Simon Hodes G#TeamGP #StrengthenPrimaryCare (@DrSimonHodes) September 3, 2021
890 patients to rebook
'road freight challenges'
(is this newspeak for 'Brexit')@HelenRSalisbury @Parody_RCGP pic.twitter.com/hFCYYv17im
Yup! Same here, you couldn't make it up, hundreds of appointments to cancel, that's ok because of course #teamGP is sat around not doing much https://t.co/LPYlSad2bN pic.twitter.com/EFzu5vCGfD— iain chorlton (@chorltia) September 3, 2021
The flu campaign for 2021 is set to be the largest in history - with more than half the UK population to be offered a jab. The campaign was roughly doubled in size last year in a bid to prevent a major flu outbreak alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, and for 2021 this expanded cohort has been retained with some further groups added.
The government warned earlier this year that low flu rates last year as lockdowns limited social contact are likely to mean a 'lower level of population immunity against influenza in 2021/22.
Officials predict this year's flu season could be 'up to 50% larger' than in a typical year and could start earlier than normal - and have warned that flu vaccination is a major priority to reduce pressure on the health service at a time when it could be facing a winter spike in COVID-19.