Matt Hancock vows ‘most comprehensive’ flu vaccine programme ever as Britain prepares for coronavirus winter pressure
The Health Secretary urged those eligible to get vaccinated. (PA)
The Health Secretary is promising to kick off the “biggest flu vaccination programme in history” as part of plans to get the NHS ready for a potential coronavirus crunch in the winter months.
Matt Hancock said it was “mission critical” to prepare the health service for the winter months as he unveiled an expanded programme which will eventually see those aged 50 to 64 invited for free vaccinations.
Free vaccines will also be made available to those on the ‘shielded’ list for coronavirus as well as members of their households; all school groups up to year 7; people over 65; pregnant women; those with pre-existing conditions; and children under two years old who are at-risk.
Ministers said further details of the 50-64 expansion would be unveiled in the future, with the NHS expected to contact people directly to inform them that they are eligible.
Mr Hancock said: “It’s mission critical that we pull out all the stops to get ready for winter, and the Prime Minister has already announced £3 billion to protect the NHS.
“We are now taking another important step to help protect the wider public by giving the flu vaccination to more people than ever before. This will be the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and will help protect our NHS as we head into winter.”
He added: “If you are eligible for a free vaccine, whether it’s for the first time or because you usually receive one, then I would urge you to get it, not just to protect yourself, but to protect the NHS and your loved ones, from flu.”
"More details are needed about the extra funding for primary care" - Dr Graham Jackson, NHS Confederation
This year’s flu vaccination programme takes on particular significance because experts have warned that a surge in flu cases, combined with pressure on the NHS from coronavirus — a disease whose winter effects are still to be seen — could put major pressure on the health service.
Launching the drive, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said: “This winter more than ever, with COVID-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks. Vaccinating more people will help reduce flu transmission and stop people becoming ill.”
The move comes after the Government unveiled £3bn in additional NHS funding to help the service prepare for the winter, when hospitals often reach maximum capacity even in a normal year.
The cash will see the NHS continue to use facilities at private hospitals and allow the newly-constructed Nightingale hospitals — largely unused so far during the Covid-19 pandemic — to keep running until the end of March next year.
Labour has welcomed the Government pledge — but urged ministers to go further.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Flu, alongside a second Coronavirus wave, could be devastating. That is why Keir Starmer demanded that a comprehensive flu vaccination programme be put in place ahead of the winter, including free vaccinations for the over 50s."
He added: “It’s welcome ministers have listened to Labour but they must offer a guarantee that the programme will be offered to all over 50s this winter. We will do all we can locally and nationally to encourage take up of the flu vaccine.”
Dr Graham Jackson, of the NHS Confederation — which represents healthcare organisations — said: “The decision to expand the free availability of the vaccine to protect vulnerable people is welcome and we would encourage all health and care staff to be vaccinated where appropriate.”
But he added: “More details are needed about the extra funding for primary care to help administer the biggest and most comprehensive flu campaign that this country has ever seen.
“GP practices, Primary Care Networks (PCNs) and other providers will want assurances that more vaccine will be available to match demand."
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