The Government is ramping up its winter flu vaccination programme this year amid warnings flu combined with coronavirus present a “double danger” this winter.
About 30 million people in England set to be offered a free flu jab in the coming months.
By David Child
The NHS flu programme will be extended to include those aged 50 and over, people shielding amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as those who live with them, and children in their first year of secondary school.
The move comes amid heightened concern at flu season clashing with a second wave of Covid-19 and potentially overwhelming the NHS.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, warned: “Flu can be deadly and it is easily spread in children and adults. The vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from becoming ill with the flu, especially if you are in a vulnerable group.
“This winter with Covid still circulating, and the increased risk to life if you are ill with both viruses simultaneously, it is even more vital to get the free jab as soon as you can.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week he wants “everyone to have a flu jab in the run up to this winter”, saying it is “vital” to protect the NHS.
So, here’s what you need to know about the Government’s plans for the flu vaccination programme:
Who is currently eligible for a free flu jab?
At the moment, the free NHS flu programme is for people aged 65 and over, pregnant women, people with certain conditions such as kidney disease, asthma or heart disease and carers or those in care homes.
Frontline health and social care workers are also eligible to receive the vaccine.
The flu jab is also free for children over six months with a long-term health condition, those aged two and three and those in primary school.
Last year, around 15 million people received an inoculation, including 74 per cent of England’s frontline healthcare workers.
Who will also now be covered under the extended scheme?
The programme will now be extended to include all school year groups up to year 7 and anyone aged 50 and over.
People who are being asked by the Government to shield themselves amid the Covid-19 pandemic and members of their household will also be eligible for a free jab.
Why is the vaccination programme being extended?
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said extending the vaccination programme was part of a “mission critical” push to prepare the NHS for the winter.
“We are now taking another important step to help protect the wider public by giving the flu vaccination to more people than ever before,” he said.
“This will be the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and will help protect our NHS as we head into winter.”
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, meanwhile said the vaccine would help “protect” people and reduce flu transmission.
“Flu can have serious consequences and vulnerable people can die of it,” he said. “Having the vaccine protects you, and helps reduce transmission to others.
“This winter more than ever, with Covid-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks. Vaccinating more people will help reduce flu transmission and stop people becoming ill.”
It comes after Public Health England researchers analysed data in almost 20,000 people who were tested for both Covid-19 and flu between January 20 and April 25.
Some 58 were identified as having “co-infection” of the two viruses and overall 43% of these died compared to 27% of those who tested positive for Covid-19 alone.
Those who died “tended” to be older, PHE said, warning people to “not be complacent”. Flu usually kills around 11,000 people each year in England and many more are hospitalised.
How will the scheme work?
The NHS will get in contact with all those who are eligible for a free flu jab.
Officials want to ensure the highest risk patients are at the front of the queue for vaccinations when the immunisation programme starts in September, with those aged 50-64 set to be offered the jab later.
The aim is that all those eligible will have had their vaccine by Christmas.
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the move to extend the vaccination scheme but warned it “is likely that Covid-19 will present challenges to delivering the flu programme”.
“We will need to take measures to ensure all patients are safe when they come to get their vaccination, and we will need to ensure people, particularly in at risk groups, are confident in doing so,” he said.
“If a Covid-19 vaccination is available for use then this will also need to be factored in.”
What are the plans for the rest of the UK?
Scottish officials have said they are “examining the best options” for expanding the country’s flu vaccine programme but are yet to formally announce their plan.
The Welsh Government has meanwhile announced an extended free flu jab scheme, which will include the shielding group, and lower the eligibility age for the inoculation from 65 to 50. Extra supplies of the nasal spray flu vaccine will also be made available for toddlers and primary school children.
Plans for Northern Ireland have not yet been announced.