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Rollout of Covid and flu jabs brought forward over new variant scare

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Deviating from the initial schedule to kick off the flu and Covid-19 vaccination campaigns in October, the NHS England has announced that the autumn vaccination drive will commence sooner than expected in England, starting on September 11. This decision was taken as a precaution in response to a new Covid-19 variant.

The precautionary measure is being taken as the Department of Health and Social Care and the UK Health Security Agency examined the variant BA.2.86, which was first detected in the UK on Friday, August 18, 2023, the NHSE said on Aug. 30.

While NHS England had previously announced that vaccinations for both NHS programmes would begin on October 2 for residents of older adult care homes, appointments for other eligible groups were scheduled for the following week, starting on October 7. This decision prompted community pharmacy leaders to denounce the delayed start of the flu service as ‘unacceptable’.

Copping with a tight timeframe 

The acceleration payments for September and October could facilitate increased Covid vaccinations through pharmacies. To support the cause, the NHS will extend the deadline for expressing interest in providing the service. However, pharmacy teams now confront a notably tight timeframe to ready themselves for the approaching season.

“We understand and support the clinical need for this accelerated booster campaign,” said Alastair Buxton, Director of NHS Services at Community Pharmacy England. “The acceleration payments for early vaccinations will make it more financially viable for pharmacy owners to participate. However, despite the positive funding news – which aligns with our consistent alerts to NHS England about the inadequacy of the offered fees – the beginning of the winter vaccination program has been disorderly for community pharmacies and other providers. The constantly shifting timetable is inefficient for pharmacies and other providers to adhere to.”

Buxton said that community pharmacies remain prepared to assist with emergency Covid vaccination programs during the pandemic. “Many pharmacies are still interested in participating, as long as it is financially viable and they can adequately plan for it.”

“Pharmacies will once again show their adaptability and do their utmost to help with this newly accelerated campaign, but the policy to-ing and fro-ing that we have seen this year must not be repeated,” he added.

‘Avoid future uncertainties’

The sudden changes to the winter vaccination program’s start date have caused confusion for pharmacy teams and the public.

“Next year, the Government should plan ahead more decisively to prevent such uncertainty. It’s essential for eligible individuals to promptly receive their flu and Covid-19 booster vaccines to ensure the safety of themselves and their families in anticipation of the winter viruses,” said Tase Oputu, Chair of RPS in England. “Pharmacy teams will resume their regular practice of starting vaccinations in September, continuing to play a crucial role in the Government’s vaccination strategy,” she further added.

‘Pharmacies readying to safeguard the nation’

Pharmacies administered more than five million flu vaccinations via the national flu vaccination service in 2022/23, according to the advanced service flu report released by the NHS Business Services Authority. The report reveals that community pharmacies provided 5,007,578 vaccinations in 2022/23, compared to 4.85 million in 2021/22. Since its inception in 2015, the service has continually shown annual growth in the number of administered vaccinations.

“Community pharmacies delivered a record number of flu vaccinations last year and have been instrumental in the achievements of the NHS Covid vaccination campaign,” Nick Kaye, Chair of NPA, noted. “Pharmacists will safeguard millions during the coming autumn and winter, ultimately saving lives. The NPA had previously voiced concerns over NHS England’s preparations for this year’s flu and Covid campaign, advocating for an earlier commencement. Therefore, the announcement of an early September start date is welcomed and should bolster pharmacies in providing an effective service.”

A looming threat 

The new decision ensures that those most vulnerable to winter illnesses, including care home residents, the clinically vulnerable, individuals aged 65 and above, healthcare and social care workers, and caregivers, will have the opportunity to receive a Covid vaccine in September.

“As our scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it’s logical to expedite the vaccination program,” said Maria Caulfield, Health Minister. “Ensuring that the most vulnerable groups receive the vaccine is crucial to strengthen their immunity during winter, protecting them and reducing pressure on the NHS.”

“There is limited information available at present on BA.2.86 so the potential impact of this particular variant is difficult to estimate,” said Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency. “As with all emergent and circulating Covid-19 variants – both in the UK and internationally – we will continue to monitor BA.2.86 and to advise government and the public as we learn more.”

Rescheduled vaccination timings

For the community pharmacies that offer Covid vaccinations:

Starting September 11, vaccination of care home residents and housebound patients will commence, overseen by integrated care systems. NHS England aims to vaccinate all residents by October 22.

Beginning September 11, Covid vaccinations will be available for eligible individuals through local booking systems, prioritising those at highest risk, including immunosuppressed patients.

Starting September 18, eligible individuals can schedule a Covid jab through the National Booking System online viaNHS.uk, the NHS App, or by dialling 119. Invitations for national vaccination will be sent to eligible recipients from this date onwards.

Besides, whenever feasible, patients should be provided with a flu vaccination concurrently.

“This change in the vaccination schedule overrides the previous guidance from NHS England to pharmacy owners regarding the start of flu vaccinations in October, unless firm commitments and appointments are already in place. Eligible patients can now receive flu vaccinations in September,” NHSE said.

Renewed pharmacy funding

Temporary financial measures have been implemented to acknowledge the extra administrative, organisational, and operational expenses that will be borne by pharmacy proprietors. Pharmacies entrusted with administering Covid vaccinations are now eligible to make claims for:

  • An extra acceleration payment of £10 (in addition to the item of service fee) will be granted for every Covid vaccination administered to care home residents between September 11 and Sunday, October 22.
  • A distinct one-time supplementary payment of £200 will be awarded for each finalised care home by23:59 on Sunday, October 22, confirmed through the submission of a real-time survey no later than 23:59 on Sunday, October 29.
  • In addition to the IoS fee, an extra £5 acceleration payment will be provided for each Covid vaccination administered to eligible individualsfrom September 11 to October 31. This excludes vaccinations for care home residents, housebound individuals, and any health and care worker vaccinations commissioned under the NHS Standard Contract.

Meanwhile, the NHSE announced plans to launch a training initiative in September for 1000 staff, aimed at broadening their roles within community pharmacies and improving patient access to services. Among them, 500 pharmacy staff will undergo training to supervise pharmacists during prescription training, while the remaining 500 will provide support for a range of training endeavours, including pre- and post-registration programs for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

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