Urgent flu jab plea amid threat of second Covid-19 wave

Health bosses are urging people to get their flu jabs declaring it "more important than ever", as the threat of a second wave of Covid-19 hangs in the balance.

The programme has been expanded in case the coronavirus pandemic continues into winter.

Free flu immunisation is being offered to millions more this year, in a bid to ease pressure on healthcare services.

But new figures have revealed flu jab rates were below target for those at risk in Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin last winter, and experts say achieving the new goals will be a major challenge.

Public Health England figures show just 46.6 per cent of clinically “at risk” people in Telford and Wrekin had the vaccine between September and February – below the target of at least 55 per cent.

While in the wider Shropshire area, 49.8 per cent of “at risk” people had the vaccine in the same time frame.

The group includes those aged between six months and 64-years-old with serious diseases, the severely obese and people with learning disabilities who are at greater risk of developing serious complications if they catch flu.

A free vaccine is also offered to people aged 65 or over.

The uptake rate in Telford and Wrekin for people in this age bracket was 71.6 per cent – short of the 75 per cent minimum.

It was 73.3 per cent in Shropshire.

The Government wants to expand the programme to include those shielding from the coronavirus and members of their household, health and social care workers, and later to all those aged 50 or over.

It says this could amount to more than 30 million people including existing target groups – double the number of vaccinations recorded in Public Health England’s 2019-20 flu report.

The chief medical officer Chris Whitty has asked health professionals for a “concerted effort” to achieve at least 75 per cent uptake across all eligible groups.

Dr Julian Povey, GP and joint chair of Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), is encouraging those eligible to make sure they get their flu jab.

Dr Julian Povey

He said: “The flu vaccination protects you from catching flu and is more important than ever.

“We are expecting the vaccine to be delivered to GP practices towards the end of September and the CCGs are working hard to support practices in their delivery of vaccination clinics, given the additional pressures of social distancing and full personal protective equipment during the pandemic.

“Every year the flu hospitalises and kills thousands, so we would encourage all eligible patients to attend the vaccination clinic when they are invited by their practice. It is also important to take up the offer of a free flu vaccine as it is the most effective way of protecting you and other members of your family from the effects of flu.”

Dr Mary McCarthy, a GP at Belvidere Medical Practice in Shrewsbury, says she expects people will be keener to get vaccinated this year because of Covid-19.

She said: “The surgeries are making big efforts to make sure when they are doing it, it is going to be safe.”

Dr McCarthy, who also represents Shropshire, North Staffordshire and South Staffordshire on the General Practitioners Committee of the British Medical Association, said it is possible that the flu season will coincide with a second spike in coronavirus and doctors are concerned about people getting both.

Belvidere Medical Practice. Photo: Google StreetView

She added: “The CCG has a plan in place to make sure all surgeries have capacity to deal with flu vaccinations.

“However, we are always dependent on supplies getting through to us.”

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said “the very real threat of a second wave” of the coronavirus makes this year’s flu programme more important than ever.

He added: “The additional number of patients and ongoing circulation of Covid-19 will be a major challenge for GPs and practices who will be delivering this year’s programme with social distancing measures in place.”

It is essential GPs have adequate supplies of PPE, access to testing, and staff to cope with the new pressures, he said.

Dr Doug Brown, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology, also called for more resources and a high-profile campaign to explain to the public why getting vaccinated is so important.

Free vaccinations are also being extended to children in the first year of secondary school.

Dr David Elliman, an immunisation spokesman at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said getting the rate up to 75 per cent including year seven pupils is “going to take a lot to achieve”.

“Providing services that can cope with the hoped-for increased uptake in the groups targeted already and then the expansion to all those over 50 will be an immense challenge,” he said.

Dr Elliman added that children – especially younger ones – are “super spreaders” of flu.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We already have some of the best flu vaccine uptake rates in Europe, but this winter more than ever it is vital that everybody eligible gets their flu vaccine to protect themselves and support the NHS and social care.

“The Health Secretary has outlined plans for the biggest flu vaccine programme in UK history and healthcare staff will work to vaccinate more than 30 million people, millions more than received it last year.”

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