Pharmacy bodies, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) and Community Pharmacy England (CPE), have written to health secretary Steve Barclay, calling for his “immediate intervention” to ensure that the community pharmacy flu vaccination programme begins on 1 September 2023.
CPE has also written separately to pharmacy minister Neil O’Brien and vaccines minister Maria Caulfield, warning that “hundreds of thousands” of patients could miss out on the chance to be vaccinated in September 2023 if NHS England’s decision to delay the programme until October 2023 is not reversed.
In the letter to the pharmacy and vaccines ministers, CPE warned of “administrative chaos” for pharmacies as they try to rebook vaccination appointments into a shorter time span, and a “very real risk” that pharmacy teams would be unable to manage their workload this winter or recoup the investment they had made sourcing vaccines.
The service specification for the 2023/2024 community pharmacy seasonal flu vaccination programme, published by NHS England (NHSE) on 4 August 2023, stated: “The service commencement date will be announced and authorised by the commissioner in the Primary Care Bulletin”.
CPE said when the service specification was published that NHSE had advised that the programme was likely to begin in October 2023. NHSE has now confirmed this, although the exact start date is yet to be announced.
“Changing the start date of a service is a substantial amendment that needs careful consideration and plenty of notice given to both service providers and users — neither of which NHS England did, despite the evidence that we have provided to them on this issue,” said Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at CPE.
“A delay to the start of the flu vaccination service to October would be a disaster for many community pharmacies, who will have to undo their planning and try to squeeze in thousands more vaccinations into later months, all while trying to juggle the ongoing major challenges facing all community pharmacies.
“We have not had any final decision about the start date of the service communicated to us and are continuing to use all channels to press for common sense to prevail and for the service to start from September.”
James Davies, RPS director for England, said: “Community pharmacy teams play a vital role in delivering flu vaccinations. Our members are deeply concerned about the additional workplace pressures that could be placed on community pharmacy teams as a result of a delay.
“Booking systems are open, stock is ready, and teams are already preparing, which is why we’re supporting the call to review this decision.”
Community pharmacy representatives around England have told The Pharmaceutical Journal that patients and community pharmacies will experience huge problems because of the last-minute change to expected plans.
Nicola Goodberry Kenneally, chief executive officer of Community Pharmacy West Yorkshire, said: “Last year, more than a million people were vaccinated in pharmacies in September and pharmacies have planned to do the same again this year.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have already booked those appointments and would face late-notice cancellations of these appointments if this decision is not reversed. Pharmacy teams will have to try to re-book patients into appointments in October and November, creating an impossible workload for their teams — this will affect their ability to help patients with wider healthcare needs as the NHS heads into another critical winter period.”
Michael Keen, chief executive officer of Community Pharmacy Kingston and Richmond, described the decision as “short-sighted” and “ill-considered”.
“Pharmacies have ordered stock, undertaken training and are ready to go, and now the start of the vaccinations is deferred. This will mean holding stock for longer and patients that should be vaccinated having to wait,” he said.
Hitesh Patel, chief executive officer of Community Pharmacy London, said: “The NHS has known about the COVID autumn booster campaign for a long time and, rather than plan for the COVID programme to be brought forward, they have delayed the flu vaccination programme. Community pharmacies would have ordered flu vaccines for early September and will now be faced with the situation where they will be turning away patients even when their fridges are bulging with flu vaccines.”
An NHSE spokesperson said: “The NHS adult flu vaccination programme will begin in October to maximise protection for patients right across the winter months when it is typically colder and viruses are more likely to spread with people spending more time indoors. The NHS is working to ensure a growing number of vaccine sites across England offer both flu and COVID-19 vaccines in the same visit, to make it as convenient as possible for people to get life-saving protection from both viruses ahead of winter.”