Community pharmacies will be able to provide flu and COVID-19 vaccinations to those most at risk from the illnesses from September 2023, the government has announced, reversing an earlier decision to start vaccinations from October 2023.
In a statement published on 30 August 2023, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the vaccination programmes had been brought forward to start on 11 September 2023 as a precautionary measure, following the identification of COVID-19 variant BA.2.86.
“While BA.2.86 is not currently classified as a variant of concern, advice from UK Health Security Agency suggests that speeding up the autumn vaccine programme will deliver greater protection, supporting those at greatest risk of severe illness and reducing the potential impact on the NHS,” the statement said.
Earlier in August 2023, NHS England advised that the programmes would start in October 2023, rather than the usual 1 September start date, which pharmacy representatives described as “extremely frustrating”.
As a result, on 10 August 2023, pharmacy bodies, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), and Community Pharmacy England (CPE), wrote a letter to the health secretary, Steve Barclay, calling for “immediate intervention” on the start of the vaccination programmes, to ensure they began in September.
In a letter sent to all community pharmacies on 30 August 2023, NHS England said the vaccinations offer the best protection “with as short a gap as possible before exposure to circulating influenza and COVID-19 viruses, hence the previously advised later start date of early October”.
However, owing to concerns over the new COVID-19 variant, NHS England said it would now “like as many people as possible to have been vaccinated by the end of October”.
“For operational expediency and in line with public health recommendations — wherever possible, flu and COVID-19 vaccines should be administered at the same time,” it added.
The letter also said that providers will receive a payment of £10 for each COVID-19 vaccination administered to care home residents between 11 September and 22 October 2023, in addition to the £7.54 item of service (IoS) fee.
“An additional £5 acceleration payment (in addition to the IoS fee) will be made available for each COVID-19 vaccination administered to eligible people between 11 September and 31 October 2023,” the letter continued.
Commenting on the announcement, Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at CPE, said: “We understand and support the clinical need for this accelerated booster campaign and the acceleration payments for early vaccinations will make it more financially viable for some pharmacy owners to take part.”
“But despite the good news on funding — in line with our repeated warnings to NHS England that the fees being offered were too low — for community pharmacies and other providers, this has been a shambolic start to the winter vaccination programme.”
Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told The Pharmaceutical Journal: “This year, the vaccination programme announcements have been utter chaos and last minute without any consideration for the time healthcare professionals need to prepare.”
“It is good to now see this U-turn to bring the start date forwards,” she said.
“However, this last-minute way of communication by NHS management announcements about a big service such as a vaccination programme causes extra pressure for pharmacy teams, particularly the new vaccination sites, and leads to confusion for patients.”
Tase Oputu, chair of the RPS English Pharmacy Board, said: “The government must plan ahead more decisively next year to avoid such uncertainty.
“It is vital people who are eligible come forward for their flu and COVID-19 booster vaccines as soon as possible to help keep themselves and their families safe from the viruses ahead of winter.
“Pharmacy teams will now revert to their usual routine of beginning jabs in September and remain an essential element in the government’s vaccination plans.”