Everyone aged 50 years and over in England will be offered a COVID-19 booster jab and flu vaccination from September 2022, the government has announced.
This follows advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), published on 15 July 2022, which also recommended a COVID-19 booster jab for frontline health and care workers; care home residents and staff; people aged between 5 and 49 years who are in a clinical at-risk group or who share a home with an immunosuppressed person; and carers aged between 16 and 49 years.
In a statement published on 15 July 2022, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) accepted the JCVI’s advice and also announced plans to widen eligibility for a free NHS flu vaccination to include patients aged 50–64 years.
However, community pharmacy representatives have criticised the government’s “volte-face” on including the cohort, after the government said in March 2022 that the group would not be included in the 2022/2023 NHS flu vaccination programme.
The DHSC previously expanded the flu vaccination programme to include patients aged 50–64 years for the 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 flu seasons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with community pharmacies able to order additional stocks of flu vaccine from centralised government supplies to cope with the increased demand.
NHS England said in a letter to community pharmacies on 15 July 2022 that people aged 50–64 years, who are not in a clinically at-risk group, are likely to be offered a flu vaccination “later in the year once people that are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and flu … have been offered their vaccine”.
“The DHSC have confirmed with the manufacturers that additional vaccine for adult cohorts is being made available for local providers to access through their usual ordering processes,” the letter said.
“Further operational guidance, a statement of amendment to the annual flu letter and a revised flu vaccine reimbursement letter will be shared shortly.”
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), said the widened eligibility for an NHS flu vaccine “is a very welcome development”.
“However, many pharmacy contractors originally ordered flu vaccines on the basis that the [50–64 year age group] cohort would be included in the programme, as they had been for the previous two years. They then had to amend these orders when government decided in March not to include 50–64-year-olds in the flu programme,” he said.
“The latest volte-face by the government means contractors need to undertake further work, potentially undoing what they did earlier in the year.
“This is not the way important public health policy should be handled; we hope lessons will be learnt to improve the quality of the policy development process in the future.”
Buxton added that the delayed eligibility for patients aged 50–64 years could cause confusion and “reduce the number of people who take up the offer of vaccination”.
“In a year when the government is concerned about the potential impact of respiratory illness on individuals and the NHS, this delay seems very unwise,” he continued.
Both the COVID-19 booster programme and the flu vaccination programme are due to start on 1 September 2022 and run until March 2023. However, in its advice, the JCVI said that “in order to optimise protection over the winter months, the autumn programme should aim to complete [COVID-19] vaccinations by the start of December 2022”.
On 30 June 2022, NHS England said that community pharmacies’ fees for each COVID-19 vaccination during the 2022 vaccination programme would be reduced from £12.58 per vaccination to £10.06, which the PSNC said may “may discourage some from seeking to provide the service”.