Proposals under consultation would see GPs in England order seasonal influenza vaccine from a central stock purchased by the DoH, as with childhood vaccines. The DoH is reviewing how influenza vaccines are ordered following local shortages in two of the past six seasons.
These changes would affect practice income. GPs currently retain the difference between the vaccine list price reimbursed by PCTs and the discounted rate negotiated with suppliers. This difference, totalling £20 million, would instead go to the DoH.
GP leaders called for practices to remonstrate with the department over the 'bizarre' plans.
The DoH believes central procurement could save the NHS £40 million a year by removing costs of procurement by GPs and by bulk order discounts. This will also make supply more adaptable to surges in demand, it claims.
GPs were blamed for last winter's vaccine shortage, which led to the DoH releasing stocks of monovalent H1N1 pandemic vaccine from 2009/10 to ease supply problems. GPs in Wales purchase their own supplies. Community pharmacies in Scotland handle all procurement. Purchases are handled centrally in Northern Ireland.
GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said practices in England were 'very concerned' about the proposals. 'Practices have a long established system that is cost-effective, efficient and meets the needs of their patients,' he said.
Dr Vautrey added that practices had faced difficulties last winter as a result of late demand caused by the government's decision not to run the normal influenza vaccination advertising campaign. Despite this, uptake remained high, he said.
He added: 'Improvements could be made so practices share surplus vaccines in a better way, or draw on reserves more easily. But it would seem bizarre for the DoH to move to a central system at a time when the government policy of localism is to do the opposite.'
Health secretary Andrew Lansley said: 'We must never underestimate this virus, which is why we are looking at how best we can maintain a good supply of vaccine.'
The DoH will hold a 'small central strategic reserve' of emergency influenza vaccine this winter as a contingency against further local shortages. A Health Protection Agency report issued last week found that 602 people died from influenza last winter, with the highest rate of fatalities among young and middle-aged adults.