Government must get a hold of flu jab shortages, before the NHS is overwhelmed with a double threat
At the start of July, Keir Starmer called for free flu vaccines for over-50s to prevent the ‘perfect storm’ of the two viruses in tandem, writes Alex Norris MP. | PA Images
If the government fail to get their act together and let the NHS be overwhelmed by the double threat of Covid-19 and winter flu it will be unforgiveable.
Last week it was widely reported that under-65s have already been turned away when trying to book their flu jabs for the upcoming winter period. Unprecedented demand has meant that these people, even those with other conditions making them vulnerable such as asthma and diabetes, could be going into this dangerous period at risk if the government doesn’t act soon.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was some degree of understanding for the government’s shortcomings when faced with unprecedented challenges. In Opposition, we’ve been working constructively, putting the wellbeing and livelihoods of the British people first throughout the crisis.
As we now begin to experience a second spike it is clear that the government's slow responses and inconsistent messaging have made things more difficult and contributed to the need for the new restrictions. If the government fail to get their act together and let the NHS be overwhelmed by the double threat of Covid-19 and winter flu it will be unforgiveable.
The challenge of winter flu is one that must be tackled every year and from the early stages of the outbreak the looming prospect of a second wave of Covid-19 transmission coinciding with the winter flu has been a possibility. Calls for preparation to be ramped up started months ago as the picture became clearer.
That’s why at the start of July, Keir Starmer called for free flu vaccines for over-50s to prevent the ‘perfect storm’ of the two viruses in tandem, while the Royal College of GPs called for assurances about the supply available.
Later that month, the government promised the most comprehensive flu programme in UK history this winter – which of course would be very welcome - but the fact that cracks are already starting to appear is extremely concerning and raises a lot of questions.
For some of these people it will be the difference between life and death. For others, the delay will mean years off their lives
Is this to be another repeat of the ‘world-beating’ test and trace system we were promised, while we still wait for one that simply works?
I have asked the Secretary of State for his assessment of both the number of flu jabs available and the capacity to administer them, but I’m still waiting for an answer. Surely Ministers are aware where these problems are emerging from? They need to get a hold on this quickly and address the deficiencies.
This is important. We're heading into winter, when transmission of Covid and flu variants will be rife and people's immune systems weakened. The NHS needs to be able to react to these surges.
Just this week official statistics showed that the waiting list for cancer patients to see specialists had risen to about 58,000 by the middle of September. Up to 1 million women could have missed breast cancer screenings. Over 6,000 people have now been waiting over 100 days following a referral to cancer services.
For some of these people it will be the difference between life and death. For others, the delay will mean years off their lives. By now, the government should be working to reduce these numbers. It simply cannot afford to get worse, and the flu programme is part of preventing that.
This is the perfect opportunity for the government to get ahead of the game while we wait for a Covid-19 vaccine to be developed. They must get this right.
Alex Norris is the Labour MP for Nottingham North and shadow public health minister.