Jabs for Secondary School Students in UK's Biggest Flu Programme

Joe Gammie & Peter Russell

July 17, 2021

Free flu vaccines will be made available to more than 35 million people including all secondary school students this winter, ministers have announced.

England's Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced on Saturday that the seasonal flu programme beginning in September will be the biggest in the UK’s history and urged everyone eligible to take up the jab.

Mr Javid said: "Flu can be a serious illness and we want to build a wall of protection by immunising a record number of people.

"With the nation getting closer to normal life, we must learn to live with COVID-19 alongside other viruses and we’re offering the free flu jab to millions more people to help keep them safe this winter.

"The phenomenal scale of the COVID-19 vaccination programme is a clear demonstration of the positive impact vaccination can make and I encourage all those eligible to get their flu jab when called forward."
 

No Room for Flu Complacency

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that, due to COVID measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and reduced foreign travel, flu levels across the world were lower than expected in 2020-21.

But it is possible there will be higher levels this winter with more of the population susceptible given the low levels last season, it added.

Public Health England Medical Director Dr Yvonne Doyle said: "Last winter, flu activity was extremely low, but this is no reason for complacency as it means less people have built up a defence against the virus.

"Combined with the likelihood that COVID-19 will still be circulating, this makes the coming flu season highly unpredictable."

The DHSC, NHS England and Improvement, and Public Health England have issued the 2021-22 annual flu letter to providers, setting out plans for this year’s expanded programme.

From September, providers will offer the flu vaccine to more people, including all secondary school students up to Year 11 for the first time, the DHSC said.

Other groups eligible for vaccination include children aged 2 and 3 on August 31, all primary school children, people aged 50 and over, pregnant women, unpaid carers, and frontline health and adult social care staff.

The enlarged flu drive will build on last year’s expanded flu programme the DHSC said, which saw a record 19 million jabs being administered.

The expanded flu programme is expected to be delivered alongside any booster programme for COVID-19 vaccines.
 

JCVI Advice

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is expected to publish its final advice on the COVID booster jab programme later this summer, the DHSC said.

The committee last month published interim guidance setting out the priority list for who should get a third jab if a booster programme is needed.

The first stage will see 15 million of the most vulnerable people across the UK offered a booster including over-70s, health and care workers, older care home residents, the clinically extremely vulnerable, and people who are immunocompromised.

The second stage will extend to a further 17 million people including over-50s, adults over the age of 16 who usually are offered a free NHS flu jab, those aged 16-49 in a COVID at-risk group, and people who are in regular contact with someone who is immunocompromised.

In a letter to senior health leaders, GPs, and hospital bosses earlier this month, NHS England said health systems should prepare to deliver booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines between September 6 and December 17.

NHS Providers Chief Executive Chris Hopson said people will need to be vaccinated for flu and COVID for "years to come" and it needed to be delivered alongside other work.

He added: "Rolling out a flu programme of this scale alongside a COVID booster campaign will take a huge amount of planning, collaboration and commitment, particularly from primary care.

"It is incredibly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and while we have no doubt the NHS can meet this challenge, we do need to think about how we enable NHS staff to carry out this programme while meeting the other pressures they face.

"We’ll be vaccinating against flu and COVID for years to come so let’s put our approach on a sustainable footing as soon as possible."

'Breaking Point'

The NHS could be pushed to "breaking point" this winter by a "lethal triple mix" of COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), health experts warned earlier this week.

Modelling for a report drawn up by the Academy of Medical Sciences suggested that hospital admissions and deaths from influenza and RSV could be twice that of a 'normal' season and coincide with a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Despite the success of the COVID vaccination programme, the pandemic was not over, infection rates were rising rapidly, and the NHS was already under pressure during the summer months as it struggled to cope with a backlog of routine care, the analysis said.

'Can't Rule Out Another Winter Wave'

"Our modelling suggests a summer peak of COVID-19 infections with subsequent local outbreaks over winter – though we can't completely rule out another winter wave," said Prof Azra Ghani, one of 29 expert advisory group members.

The report called for advanced planning now to prepare for the winter ahead.

The report painted a bleak picture of how the NHS might be swamped during the winter season, with a diminished number of hospital beds due to infection control measures.

A combination of COVID, flu, and respiratory illness cases could coincide with a rise in conditions such as asthma, COPD, heart attacks, strokes, and mental health as a result of delayed diagnoses during the pandemic, it warned.

Staffing Pressures

The problem could be compounded by a shortage of nearly 84,000 NHS staff, and a shortage of 2500 GPs, at a time when staff fatigue and burnout presented "a challenge".

Prof Sir Stephen Holgate, chair of the expert advisory group, said: "Despite a highly successful COVID-19 vaccine campaign, the pandemic is not over yet. The message from our report is clear – COVID-19 is still with us and remains a threat to our health both directly and indirectly.

"All parts of society need to take action to head off the serious health risks we are facing now, and in the future."

The report made several recommendations. These included:

  • Boosting uptake of COVID-19 vaccination in all eligible age groups, and prepare for possible booster vaccines as well as influenza vaccines

  • Increase the ability of people with COVID-19 to self-isolate through financial and other support

  • Increase staffing and beds in the NHS to build resilience against future outbreaks of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, including through improving infection prevention and control, vaccination, and testing capacity for COVID and flu

  • Ensure that primary care is adequately resourced

  • Provide clear guidance about environmental and behavioural precautions, including face coverings, ventilation, and physical distancing, that people and organisations can take

End of Lockdown Begins 'An Uncertain Era'

Prof Dame Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: "We are moving into a new and uncertain era as society opens up. We are all going to have to make decisions about what risk we are prepared to live with – and we need to empower people with clear information and support to do this.

"When rates of COVID-19 are high, physical distancing and wearing face coverings in crowded indoor spaces alongside working from home when possible are sensible measures that will also protect us from other respiratory viruses this winter."

Commenting on the report to the Science Media Centre, Dr Zania Stamataki, viral immunologist, University of Birmingham, said there was an urgent need to "bolster our defences by injecting new resources into the health services, expanding our testing capacities to include influenza and RSV, and extending clear guidelines for vaccination and infection prevention measures".

Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, said that cases of rhinovirus, parainfluenza, and RSV were already rising and that the numbers "will just get worse" as autumn and winter approach.

Publication of the report came as Prof Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, warned that that the UK was "not out of the woods yet" when it came to COVID, and that hospitalisations from the disease could hit "quite scary numbers" if the trend was sustained.

This article contains information from PA Media.

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