Britain may be forced to throw away flu shots over the decision to delay the ride, pharmacists fear.
Usually, the annual NHS vaccination campaign starts on 1 September.
But health chiefs have announced that this fall’s campaign, which has been scaled back massively, won’t start until October. Officials are trying to get more clinics ready to offer the flu shot at the same time as Covid vaccines.
Community Pharmacy England, representing the country’s 11,000 community pharmacies, is now demanding a reversal of the last-minute delay.
In a letter to Health Ministers Neil O’Brien and Maria Caulfield, the CPE said: “We find it irresponsible to announce the details of a completely predictable service – including a substantial change to the start date – so late.”
Flu vaccines will only be offered to people over 65 this winter, health chiefs confirmed yesterday. In an effort to ‘get back to normal’, invitations are not being handed out to millions of 50-64 year olds who were eligible during the pandemic
Officials originally planned to scale back the annual rollout to only those over 65, despite warnings the “short-sighted” move would leave millions vulnerable this winter. But yesterday they also revealed that they were gearing up for the vaccination campaign that was due to start in October, a full month later than usual. However, pharmacists fear the decision could affect supply by the time the program starts
The decision means pharmacies have to rebook appointments, causing “unrest and frustration” for hundreds of thousands of patients, it added.
The CPE also warned that pharmacies, which dispense the bulk of flu vaccines each winter, may not have the “capacity” to squeeze millions of fewer appointments into one month.
Dr. Leyla Hannbeck, CEO of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told MailOnline that the decision to scale back the rollout came with a “great risk” of waste.
Pre-ordered stock, which must be booked months before the flu shot’s rollout, may not run out in the available time because it could expire, insiders fear.
Dr. Hannbeck said, “This is all very last minute.
It is unclear why the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) and NHS England are waiting until the last minute to announce their decisions.
“They never involve us and we have to deal with last minute planning.
“If they have discovered that it is better to administer flu and covid vaccines at the same time, then they should communicate that earlier, not at the last hour.
“This is total disrespect for the already overburdened healthcare professionals who need time to plan.”
Nick Kaye, president of the National Pharmacy Association, said the decision to delay the rollout start date ‘makes no sense’ and confounds a ‘previously successful NHS plan’.
He added: “Last year, millions of people chose to get their flu shot from a pharmacy.
“If this change goes through, thousands of appointments will have to be canceled and pre-ordered stock will be lost.
“Temporary staff assigned to help deliver the service in September should be withdrawn.”
He added: “People who want to do the right thing by protecting themselves from this nasty disease as soon as possible should wait now.
‘NHS England urgently needs to reconsider September start date and reinstate without delay.’
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at CPE said ‘patients will pay the price’.
He told MailOnline: ‘Common sense must prevail and the NHS should reverse this decision to make a major change without adequate warning.
“If they don’t, pharmacies and their patients will pay the price.
“Time will have to be spent rebooking appointments and some pharmacies are likely to be left with vaccines that they simply cannot use in the time available.
‘Pharmacies are already under enormous pressure and simply cannot afford to take over the operational and financial pieces of bad NHS decision-making.’
Similarly, a delay in the start of the immunization campaign could cause more than a million people “who would otherwise be vaccinated by pharmacies in September” to wait longer, he warned.
“It will inevitably cause a lot of frustration for patients and it will reduce the capacity of pharmacies to provide other important healthcare services,” he added.
Last week, UKHSA analysts estimated that Covid positivity rates rose to 5.4 per cent, compared to the previous week, which itself saw a 3.7 per cent rise. Leading experts fear the outbreak will continue to gain momentum in the coming weeks as part of the virus’s natural cycle
Officials say they are “closely” monitoring the spread of the virus. However, the UK no longer publishes daily infection figures due to so few tests being carried out after the pandemic
For those not eligible for a free NHS flu shot, private flu vaccination clinics are offered to adults for just £12.
Private clinics are now likely to begin rolling out the flu shot in line with the NHS service.
The JCVI, which assists ministers in rolling out injections, published an advice yesterday stating who is eligible for a flu shot and Covid booster.
Millions under the age of 65 are not offered either vaccine.
Only people over 65, young people in a high-risk group – such as pregnant women – NHS staff, social workers and residents of care homes for the elderly are invited.
Anyone ages 12 to 64 who lives with someone who is immunocompromised, such as cancer and transplant patients, is also eligible.
Health experts called the move “short-sighted” and “disparaging” yesterday, warning flu and Covid cases may resurface before the vulnerable get their supplemental shot.
However, other top experts insisted the move was wise as the country begins to adjust to life after the pandemic.
Eligible Brits are expected to be offered both their Covid booster and flu shot during the same appointment, with an injection in each arm where possible, as in previous years.
People who don’t qualify cannot buy coronavirus shots privately, unlike flu.
It comes as Covid cases and hospital admissions are already rising across Britain, with a new variant taking off.
Eris, or EG.5.1, already accounts for one in seven new Covid cases.
However, experts have said it shows no signs of being any more dangerous than any of the other species in circulation, including its ancestor Omicron.
Experts in Australia – where the flu season runs from April to September and typically predicts how it will unfold in the UK – have warned of record cases.
Doctors have expressed concern about the impact on children, with about half of cases occurring in children under 15. Young people also account for about eight out of ten hospital admissions.
The country is predicted to have a flu season similar to 2019 – the largest on record and more than 300,000 infections recorded.
Rather than a more contagious flu strain, experts have blamed low childhood vaccination rates on making them more vulnerable to the virus.
The NHS has not yet confirmed when and how eligible groups will be able to book their appointments for their Covid and flu shots.
The British have been asked not to report until more information is known.