Around 11% fewer at-risk and elderly patients have been vaccinated this winter and ministers admitted people may be complacent following last year's mild winter.
This has forced officials into relaunching the national advertising campaign from Monday for the first time since 2009/10. It will call on at-risk people to protect themselves against flu, through radio, website and print advertisements costing £590,000. In addition, a £20m fund will be allocated to councils to help protect vulnerable people from cold weather.
In September, deputy NHS chief executive David Flory ruled out a national flu campaign, saying local areas needed to ensure people turned up for their vaccination.
But at that time, RCGP health protection lead Dr Maureen Baker warned of possible complacency among the public following low flu activity last winter. The college's immunisation lead Dr George Kassianos criticised the lack of an early campaign.
Public health minister Anna Soubry has now said people may have been 'lulled into a false sense of security' following the mild winter in 2011/12. She said: 'We have taken the decision this year to run a flu campaign because too many people in at risk groups have not come forward for the jab yet, although local campaigns have been running for the past month.'
She added: 'If you are in a risk group, don’t miss the chance to be vaccinated. Contact your GP surgery and make an appointment.'Uptake low
Just 48.9% of patients over 65 have had their jab so far this winter, compared with 54.8% at this time in 2011/12.
Similarly, just 28.7% of at-risk patients aged under 65 have been protected, down from 32.2% by November 2011. Uptake among pregnant women is up, at 23.1% compared with 13.6% in 2011/12.
RCGP health protection lead Dr Maureen Baker welcomed the campaign and said the public's complacency around vaccination was 'understandable but concerning'. 'Fortunately, we are not yet seeing high levels of circulating flu, so we are in a good position to make up ground in terms of providing vaccine to at-risk groups.'
She added: 'In terms of future winters, we will want to observe whether this campaign has the desired effect. I expect we will also need to have some discussion regarding timings of campaigns, should we want to run these again in future years.'
There has been no national flu awareness campaign for the past two winters. The DH's seasonal flu plan for last winter said that 'while a national campaign might play a role in increasing early uptake of the vaccine, research suggests that it cannot replace proactive and personalised invitations from GPs to patients'.