It’s been billed as the biggest flu vaccination programme in history – the Government’s plan for everyone over the age of 50 to get the jab on the NHS this winter. The aim is to protect 30 million vulnerable Britons – around 10 million more than in previous years – in a bid to avoid a so-called ‘twindemic’ of a bad flu season and a second wave of coronavirus.
The launch of the programme on October 4 was accompanied by a compelling advertising campaign warning that ‘in an average year, flu kills about 11,000 people… and this isn’t an average year’.
First in the queue for the jab were those over 65, pregnant women and those with certain pre-existing medical conditions. And on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the next phase – with those aged 50 to 64 to be offered a free jab from December 1.
But as the UK enters the most deadly quarter of the year for influenza deaths, it appears the ambitious plan may already be faltering.
Limited supply: Doctors are waiting for more vaccines to arrive. The Government plans for everyone over the age of 50 to get the flu jab on the NHS this winter
Pharmacies and GP surgeries across the country have been unable to get vital supplies of flu vaccines since early October, a Mail on Sunday investigation has found.
We have received reports of patients as old as 87 still waiting for a jab, while others who are at high risk of severe flu, including those with diabetes and heart disease, and those who care for disabled children or elderly relatives with dementia, also have not been able to get vaccinated. Meanwhile, housebound elderly people are being denied the jab, as home visits have been suspended.
Last weekend, our GP columnist Dr Ellie Cannon asked readers if they’d been hit by the shortages – and we were deluged with emails and letters. Readers from across the country told strikingly similar stories, with many of them left terrified by warnings of the potentially deadly consequences of catching flu and Covid at the same time.
Teresa Elliot, 72, from Bedfordshire, who has type 1 diabetes, said she had been trying to get a jab for the past six weeks and was ‘scared to leave the house’ until she got one. Having called her local clinic she claimed: ‘I was told to ring up again in December, as they did not have any, and they weren’t sure they would have any jabs then either.’
Carol Knowles, 63, a type 2 diabetic and carer for her severely disabled 24-year-old son who has cerebral palsy and is quadriplegic and blind, says neither she nor her son have been able to find a jab. Carol said: ‘I have spent most Christmases in hospital on respiratory wards with my son. He is extremely vulnerable. Our GP, chemists and Tesco haven’t had any vaccines for weeks… what are we supposed to do?’
Jennine Saunders, from Pontyclun in Wales, claimed her 87-year old father tried ‘for weeks’ to get a vaccine and was eventually told ‘not to call again’.
The flu jab cannot give you flu – it doesn’t contain a live virus so it can’t make you ill.
And Denise McNally, from Liverpool, said her 85-year-old mum has been asking for a flu jab since September. ‘She is afraid to go outdoors right now. Her surgery keeps saying she’s on the list for a visit, I’d like to know when,’ said Denise.
Part of the problem is confusion. More than 300 of those who wrote to us were aged between 50 and 64 and had believed – having seen the publicity surrounding the Government’s ‘biggest ever’ vaccination plan in July – they would be eligible for the jab as soon as the season began in September.
In late July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged: ‘Everyone should have a flu jab in the run up to this winter.’ London Mayor Sadiq Khan, 50, was pictured having the jab.
Despite the Government saying jabs for over-50s would start in December, a number of readers in their 50s who wrote to us said they’d been told by their GP not to expect it until January.
But the issue is not only one of miscommunication. There have also been supply problems which were, according to insiders, ‘expected’ from the moment the Government conceived its scheme.
Normally, GP surgeries and pharmacists purchase flu jabs from drugs manufacturers in March, to arrive in September at the start of flu season. But, in an unprecedented move, in May, Ministers approached pharmaceutical firms directly to request extra stock – a move described as a ‘logistical headache’ by one insider.
Sign of the times: NHS flu station in a car park at the Ascot Racecourse. Pharmacies and GP surgeries across England have been unable to get vital supplies of flu jabs since early October
By the time the Government made its bid, the companies were preoccupied with meeting earlier orders from all over the world, according to Hugo Fry, managing director of UK-based drugs firm Sanofi, the world’s largest provider of flu vaccines.
While Sanofi and other pharmaceutical firms agreed to send extra stock later in the year, ‘every government in the Northern hemisphere was also ordering extra stock,’ slowing things down further.
Early last week, that additional stock, one million vials of Sanofi’s Flublok jab, arrived.
Other major suppliers, GlaxoSmithKline and Mylan, have also agreed to supply additional jabs, totalling seven million doses, which are expected to arrive by the end of this month.
In fact, only one company, Seqirus, was able to provide extra stock earlier, in October.
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At the same time, GPs and pharmacies were met with unprecedented demand far earlier in the season, so jabs reportedly ran out in many areas.
The timing could not be worse, as flu deaths and hospitalisations begin to rise in the early autumn as the weather gets colder.
Due to the Covid pandemic and increased social distancing, this year flu rates have been remarkably low – which should come as some reassurance.
But according to Office for National Statistics data, there have still been more than 3,000 deaths attributed to flu and pneumonia since September.
There have been further problems with the Government’s new approach, according to Ravi Sharma, England director of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
He said pharmacists have ‘struggled to order new stock’ because of a ‘frustrating’ delay in guidance on how to access it, adding: ‘Guidance wasn’t issued until late October, and we expressed our concerns about this to the Government.’
When presented with the findings of our investigation, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘There is no national shortage of the flu vaccine and provisional data shows 72.9 per cent of over 65s having been vaccinated so far this year.
‘Our first priority has been to make sure that those most at risk of flu are vaccinated, along with health and social care workers.’
And the Royal College of General Practitioners, the professional membership body for GPs in the UK said they were ‘not aware of any supply issues’. Yet GPs speaking to this newspaper told a different story.
According to Office for National Statistics data, there have still been more than 3,000 deaths attributed to flu and pneumonia since September (file photo)
One practice in Wales told The Mail on Sunday they would not be offering any more jabs until the end of November, even for the at-risk and elderly. Another, in Birmingham, said they were still making their way through the over-65s and were ‘nowhere near ready’ to begin vaccinating the 50-to-64 age group.
And readers, who continued to contact us throughout the week, told us about the chaos and confusion they’ve experienced.
David Keenan, 75, from Canvey Island, Essex, suffers from coronary disease and has three stents in his heart. ‘According to the Government, I’m clinically vulnerable,’ he wrote. ‘I contacted our GP surgery three times regarding the flu vaccine, and each time they informed me they were waiting to receive it and they would ring when that happened. So far no contact has been made. Local pharmacies say they have used the stock they had and are waiting for supplies.’
One couple, 68 and 69, from Birmingham, who asked to remain anonymous, have been shielding since March due to underlying health conditions and have been trying since September to get their flu jabs.
They said: ‘We have called our GP every week only to be told they do not have the vaccine yet and don’t know when they will.
‘As a back-up we decided to approach our local pharmacy, as they offer flu jabs. They also told us they didn’t have the vaccine and didn’t know when they would.’
Readers have been left terrified by warnings of the potentially deadly consequences of catching flu and Covid at the same time (file photo)
Many told us they have been desperately trying to get a jab for elderly parents, to no avail.
Jane Sharman, from Longfield, Kent, says her father, an 86-year-old dementia patient, ‘has not received a flu jab or letter to invite him to attend the surgery’.
In frustration, she contacted the local pharmacist to try to pay for a jab privately, but was told they were also out of stock. ‘We are still waiting,’ she added.
Amid the heightened demand, many people under the age of 65 who would in previous years have qualified for a jab on the NHS due to pre-existing health conditions have been told – wrongly – they cannot have one this year.
Denise Murton, 63, from Heacham in Norfolk, has coronary heart disease which puts her at high risk from flu, but has been told by her pharmacist she will have to wait until everyone over 65 has received one.
Similarly, in a break from the usual procedure for flu jabs, those unable to leave the house cannot book home visits.
Rita Taylor, 85, from Hedon, Yorkshire, says she has been trying to arrange a home visit for her 89-year-old husband, who is immobile, for weeks. ‘Last Thursday afternoon I spent almost two hours trying to get through to the surgery on the phone. It is always a long process but that is a record for me. ‘Eventually a receptionist answered and I said I wanted to arrange a home visit for the flu injection. Her response was, “Oh we’ve finished doing those. You have to come to the surgery now.”
‘I explained that my husband cannot do that. He spent five weeks in hospital during the summer with back problems which turned out to be due to two broken vertebrae and a disintegrating spine. He cannot walk more than a few yards and is unable to bend his body enough to get into a car.
We have received reports of patients as old as 87 still waiting for a jab, while others who are at high risk of severe flu also have not been able to get vaccinated (file photo)
‘The receptionist said, “So that’s just you [to have the jab] then… can you come in on Saturday?” ’
Caroline Silver, whose mother turned 100 last week, said doctors told her she would have to get her mother in the car and drive her to the surgery if she wanted a jab.
‘I said we couldn’t get her in the car, so they put her on the district nurses’ list. That was over a month ago. I would happily pay someone to get her vaccinated. There seems to be nothing I can do, as there is no vaccine available outside the NHS either.’
But there is some hope for the coming months.
Thanks to the new stock now arriving, Sanofi’s Hugo Fry said he was hopeful those so far unable to access a jab would be able to get one by the end of December.
‘GPs can start taking orders for this new stock now and those orders should start to be received next week. There’s still plenty of time to get a jab.’
However many are not so optimistic. ‘It’s been a shambles’ said a reader from Norfolk. Another added: ‘Goodness only knows how they will cope with the Covid-19 vaccine’.