GPs have warned of inevitable shortages after the BMA revealed that practices will not have access to any central flu vaccine stock this year, although eligible cohorts will again be expanded.
They said the flu vaccine supply they have will not cover the expanded cohorts and that there will ‘inevitably’ be shortages if no additional stock can be secured.
Last month, NHS England confirmed that the over-50s will once again be eligible for a free flu jab for the 2021/22 flu season.
But now the BMA has confirmed that unlike last year, there will be no Government-provided flu vaccine stock to vaccinate those aged 50-64.
In its latest GP Committee bulletin, it said: ‘We have now received confirmation from NHSE/I that there will not be central procurement of the flu vaccine for the coming year’s scheme, but the at-risk group will be extended as it was this year to include 50- to 64-year-olds.
‘Practices should, where possible, take this into account when placing orders.’
A previous GPC bulletin said the BMA was ‘urgently seeking clarification’ on whether GPs should order extra flu stock for the 50-64s and ‘if that is possible at this late stage’.
Hertfordshire GP partner Dr Mike Smith told Nursing in Practice‘s sister title Pulse that the lack of a central supply will be ‘a big headache’ for GPs, especially if uptake is even higher than last year.
He said: ‘We usually order our stock in about September/October time – we start ordering for the following year about a year in advance. So there’s going to be a huge scramble now for people to contact their suppliers and try to order extra stock.
‘We had problems last year and given the fact that flu uptake is much higher and that we order them in the third quarter of the previous year, I just can’t see how this isn’t going to be a problem.’
And Dr Smith added that there will ‘inevitably’ be shortages to vaccinate the 50-64 group, if practices are unable to order additional stock.
He said: ‘A handful of practices will have basically assumed the worst and ordered more stock but I think the vast majority of them like mine won’t have done.
‘We’re now in the hands of the suppliers. They were no help last year, but maybe they’ve learned the lessons of last year as well.’
Surrey GP partner Dr Dave Triska said his practice too has ordered ‘a lot, but not enough to cover [the 50-64] group as well’.
There is ‘no chance’ the practice will be able to get hold of any further stock, he added.
A BMA spokesperson told Pulse that GPs should use their existing stock to vaccinate the cohort ‘as best as possible’ but that it has asked NHS England to ensure practices can order additional stock from suppliers.
They said: ‘Practices should have already ordered enough vaccines to cover at least their patients aged 65 and over, as well as those under 65 with health conditions which put them at higher risk.
‘Practices will need to use this existing stock to vaccinate the 50-64 cohort as best as possible, being mindful of the much lower uptake among this group this winter than in older patients, but we have asked NHS England to work with suppliers to ensure that additional supplies will be available later if needed.’
But Watford GP Dr Simon Hodes called for central ordering to ‘remove the stress, admin time and financial risk from GP practices’.
He told Pulse: ‘We have to pay for our flu jabs so it’s a financial risk to overorder – and a service risk to under order – of course central ordering would be better as they must know how many jabs are needed in total and can spread them around primary care.’
A DHSC spokesperson said that GPs are ‘responsible for ordering their own supply’ from manufacturers but that it has ‘been assured sufficient supply remains available for the next season’.
‘Further details of the winter vaccination programme will be set out in due course’, they added.
NHS England has been approached for comment.
In February, NHS England said eligible cohorts may be extended for 2021/22, depending on the levels of Covid infection and that practices should order ‘at least’ enough flu vaccines to match the number of vaccinations achieved this year.
Meanwhile, the latest bulletin also said that NHS England has ‘committed to discussing’ with the BMA the ‘potential impact’ of GP Covid booster shot delivery on the flu campaign, once further data on long-term immunity from the current jabs is available.
The BMA is awaiting results from research into the impact of giving Covid and flu vaccinations at the same time, it added.
The health secretary last week confirmed an autumn timeline for a Covid booster campaign, saying it would be ‘logistically easier’ if research concludes that the Covid vaccine can be co-administered with the flu jab.
The 2020/21 flu vaccination programme was expanded due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Government setting a target of vaccinating 30 million patients.
Shielded patients and their households, and the over 50s, were among the new cohorts – with general practice given access vaccine stock from a Government central supply for the 50-64s.