GP practices were left scrambling to cancel vaccination appointments just days before the start of the UK's largest ever flu vaccination campaign last week after supplier Seqirus reported ‘unforeseen road freight issues’.
It advised surgeries in a letter seen by GPonline not to re-book clinics until they receive a further update confirming a new date on which they can expect a delivery of vaccine.
But vaccines minister Mr Zahawi played down concerns that the flu campaign will be disrupted in a House of Commons debate on 6 September - insisting that supply issues will ‘not delay the overall flu vaccination programme at all’.
Flu vaccine campaign
He also said that the government was confident of being able to deliver a COVID-19 booster programme, if recommended by the JCVI. He admitted co-administration of the flu and COVID vaccines could be a ‘challenge’, but insisted would be the approach 'wherever possible'.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth asked the minister what he was doing to avoid a ‘flu crisis’ this winter after reported delays. Mr Zahawi said: ‘One of the suppliers, Seqirus, has had a border issue with its Spanish fill-and-finish factory, which it has used for many, many years. This is the first time that it has had this issue.
‘It is meeting the Spanish regulator to see what the issue is. It is being very careful and estimating a one- or two-week delay. This will not delay the overall flu vaccination programme at all...so I urge [you] not to, as a knee-jerk reaction, talk about flu vaccine shortages.’
Mr Zahawi added that the government was confident it would be able to deliver a booster programme, and that the delays would not impact any potential booster programme. He said: ‘I reassure...the House that the NHS has all the plans in place to deliver the booster programme...as soon as cov-boost reports, which is imminent, we will be able to operationalise a massive booster programme.’
However, the vaccines minister suggested that plans to co-administer both the flu and COVID-19 booster jabs could prove tricker than first anticipated. He said: ‘Wherever possible, we will co-administer. The only caveat I would place on that is that the JCVI has given us only its interim advice on COVID-19...If it chooses a vaccine that requires, for example, a 15-minute observation period, we have a very different challenge in co-administration.’
A Sequris spokesperson said: 'Vaccine supplies are beginning to flow out across England and Wales and some practices and pharmacies will be able to begin their vaccination campaigns. However, most customers will see a one to two-week delay this season. We are working through various logistical issues and we will keep customer informed of their delivery 7 days in advance.'
RCGP vice chair Dr Gary Howsam warned that a delay of ‘even a couple of weeks’ would have a ‘big impact on practices and their patients’ despite reassurances from the vaccines minister. He said: ‘Practices plan meticulously each year to deliver the flu vaccination programme on a mass scale and it is essential that as many people as possible in at-risk groups get their vaccination as early into the flu season as possible.
‘A delay of even a couple of weeks is going to have a big impact on practices and their patients, especially when GPs are already dealing with the fallout caused by the shortage of blood test bottles and the anxiety this is causing. General practice and the entire NHS are dependent on the smooth roll-out of the winter flu vaccination programme. It cannot fail.’
Last month GPs told GPonline that practices were struggling to decide how to deliver flu and COVID-19 booster jabs this autumn amid continued uncertainty around co-administration. LMC leaders have previously argued that an announcement should have come weeks ago to aid planning.