Patients aged 50–64 years will be eligible to receive a free flu vaccine in England and Scotland during next winter’s flu season.
In its Primary Care Bulletin, published on 26 March 2021, NHS England said it would be updating the flu vaccine reimbursement letter “imminently” to reflect the changes.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government said in a letter on the same day that community pharmacists, as well as other independent contractors, would also be eligible to receive a free flu vaccine for the first time in 2021–2022.
Community pharmacists in England are not currently eligible for a flu vaccine under the NHS flu vaccination advanced service.
However, as part of the 2020–2021 vaccination service, all frontline health and social care staff should have been offered a vaccination, “which should — in the case of general practice and community pharmacy — be provided and funded by their employer”.
Both the UK and Scottish governments previously expanded the vaccine eligibility criteria to those under the age of 65 years during the 2020–2021 flu season in an effort to ready the NHS for both the risk of a second peak of COVID-19, and to relieve winter pressures on A&E and emergency care.
The Scottish government said in August 2020 that eligibility would be extended to patients aged over 55 years, with a possible further extension to those aged 50-54 “if vaccine supplies allow”.
However, after those aged 60–64 years were invited to get their free flu vaccine in early December 2020, NHS Scotland said people aged 55–59 years would not be invited for a flu vaccination as “current levels of seasonal flu remain very low”.
But in the letter sent on 26 March 2021, the Scottish government announced that in 2021–2022, “the vaccination of those aged 50–64 years … should commence from the start of the programme”.
The letter added that independent contractors, including community pharmacists, would receive a free flu vaccine “to maintain the resilience of services during the Scottish Government’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and to reduce the risk of infection and transmission of the virus”.
In England, pharmacists were able to begin vaccinating patients aged 50–64 years from 1 December 2020.
NHS England said in the bulletin that patients aged 50–64 years “are expected to be included as an eligible cohort for the 2021/22 flu season”.
“The flu reimbursement letter is currently being updated to reflect the inclusion and will be republished imminently. Providers are asked to await the updated flu reimbursement letter for more information,” it said.
Commenting on the expansion, Rekha Shah, chief executive officer of Kensington Chelsea & Westminster Local Pharmaceutical Committee and Pharmacy London lead for vaccinations, said pharmacies “definitely have the capacity and the will to deliver once again to this additional cohort”.
“They would be able to do an incredible job of it, were the fact that this cohort is to be included was made known right from the start so that providers, including GP practices and community pharmacies, were able to plan accordingly and order their own stocks of vaccines right from the outset,” she said.
Shah added that pharmacies “would do this extremely well even if, alongside flu and pneumococcal vaccinations, they were required to contribute to the COVID-19 vaccination programme too — be it first or second jabs, or the booster programme”.
In February 2021, the government announced plans for a COVID-19 revaccination campaign alongside its roadmap to easing lockdown restrictions.
How has the community pharmacy flu vaccination programme gone so far this season?
By the end of January 2021, community pharmacies in England had delivered more than 2.5 million flu vaccinations for the winter 2020–2021 season. This was over 1 million more than they delivered in the entire previous flu vaccine season.
In Wales, 88,241 influenza vaccinations were delivered through community pharmacy between September 2020 and December 2020, compared with 61,756 delivered during the same time period in the year before.
The 2020–2021 flu season was the first time that Scottish community pharmacies provided NHS flu vaccinations. It was up to individual health boards to decide whether community pharmacy would be used as part of the vaccination programme. The Pharmaceutical Journal reported in October 2020 that pharmacies had only been commissioned to provide a small number of vaccinations.