Everyone in the UK could be offered a flu jab to avoid a surge in serious cases this winter, when there might be a second wave of the coronavirus.
Scientists fear that Covid-19 could return in winter when lockdown restrictions have been eased and viral illnesses in general are more common.
If that happens and there is another major outbreak, the NHS will once again be at risk of getting overwhelmed. Winters are especially busy for Britain’s hospitals because so many people get seriously ill with the flu.
Vaccinating everyone against influenza could minimise this risk and mean hospitals are under less pressure to begin with and better able to cope with Covid-19 patients.
Currently, the free jabs are mostly saved for over-65s, primary school and nursery children, pregnant women, people with serious health conditions such as heart, kidney or liver disease, and people who live in care homes.
A flu jab is not expected to give people any protection from the coronavirus but to ease pressure on the health service.
But the UK is not alone in its thinking – other countries are planning to do the same and there are already reports of a global supply shortage of the flu vaccines.
Manufacturers in the UK say demand for the doses is rising but companies may not have enough time to develop and manufacture them and get them out to clinics before the cold weather hits.
Everyone in the UK could be offered a flu jab to avoid a surge in serious cases needing hospital care in the event of a second coronavirus wave (stock image)
Most people who get the flu only have a mild illness, but the illness can become so severe a person needs hospitalisation and can be fatal.
The symptoms of coronavirus – a fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, a sore throat – could be mistaken for the flu.
This could cause confusion among the population. If they have the coronavirus, they may think they only have the flu is they have not been given a shot to protect them.
In the UK, the flu vaccine is already offered to those most at risk, including the over-65s, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems or having treatment for cancer, for example.
Flu shots are also made available for primary schoolchildren who have an underlying health condition and health and social care workers.
Dr Hans Kluge, director for the WHO European region, previously said he was ‘very concerned’ a surge in coronavirus infections would coincide with other seasonal diseases such as the flu across Europe.
‘We call it when “Covid will meet the flu”,’ Dr Kluge warned in an interview with The Guardian about the dangers of lifting lockdown too early in England.
Dr Kluge said it would be crucial for governments to distribute the influenza vaccine among the groups most vulnerable to Covid-19, such as the elderly and men.
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said the flu vaccination programme will be ‘a crucial part of preparing the UK for winter’.
‘We plan for the flu season well in advance and further details will be published soon,’ the spokesperson said.
WHO IS ALREADY ELIGIBLE FOR A FREE FLU VACCINE?
In 2020/21 groups eligible for the NHS funded flu vaccination programme are currently the same as last year.
- Over-65s and people with diabetes and chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma.
- People with serious heart or kidney disease, or people undergoing cancer treatment.
- Parents with children aged over six months with asthma or diabetes or weakened immunity due to disease or treatment.
- Other groups include residents in long-stay care homes and people who have lowered immunity due to HIV or are on steroid medication.
- NHS workers are also urged to get a free flu jab in order to protect patients.
But according to a joint letter issued from the DHSC, Public Health England and, NHS England and Improvement, on May 14, the list may change if the programme is expanded this year.
This could include:
- All children aged two to 10 years old (but not 11 years or older).
- Those aged six months to under 65 years in clinical risk groups.
- Close contacts of immunocompromised individuals.
- Health and social care staff employed by a registered residential care home.
The letter added: ‘We anticipate that concerns about COVID-19 may increase demand for flu vaccination in all groups this year.’
Pharmacy contractors have been given a forewarning about the challenges ahead for securing enough shots.
A joint letter issued from the DHSC, Public Health England and, NHS England and Improvement, on May 14 asked contractors ‘to urgently review’ their ability to meet demand.
It said ‘discussions to consider expansion of the flu programme for this autumn are underway,’ the results of which will be announced near to September.
It added: ‘We anticipate that concerns about COVID-19 may increase demand for flu vaccination in all groups this year.’
Members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), who have been advising the Government during the coronavirus crisis, raised the idea of flu shots for the entire population in April.
Professor Peter Openshaw, an Imperial College London expert who is a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) said a bad flu season with coronavirus ‘would be a huge burden on the NHS’.
‘Given that we do have a way of reducing the impact of flu with vaccination, it is something to be considered,’ he told The Guardian.
Professor Openshaw said giving the flu vaccine to younger groups would offer a benefit.
He said: ‘There would obviously be an additional cost but it could potentially reduce flu circulation by taking people out of the transmission pattern who aren’t going to suffer terribly themselves, but who might pass it on to other people.’
To make flu jabs available to the whole population, Professor Openshaw said the UK would need 30 to 40 per cent more doses than usual.
Influenza vaccinations have become increasingly difficult to manufacture due to the viruses frequently changing.
Production of the vaccine starts in March – which is when the coronavirus peaked in Europe – after the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals which strains of flu virus are most likely to be circulating the next winter.
Vaccine manufacturers fear they will not keep up with the spike in interest from countries in the northern hemisphere as they move towards winter.
Sanofi, one of the top NHS suppliers of flu jabs each winter, warned it would struggle to ramp up production of flu shots for the 2020-2021 season and that the additional requests were ‘beyond our anticipated and planned supply’.
A Sanofi spokesperson said: ‘We have been asked by countries across the northern hemisphere, including the UK, about the possibility to provide additional flu vaccine.
‘We are actively seeing what more can be done to meet additional demand, but it will be a challenge.
‘Sanofi will produce more flu vaccines this year than ever before, a 20 per cent increase over the last two years, but global demand will outpace supply.’
It follows the companies’ difficulties to speedily vaccinate those eligible in the winter of 2019 due to manufacturing problems.
The company wrote to GPs in England last September, alerting them stock would be held up for the first couple of weeks of the vaccinating programme.
UK-based vaccine manufacturer Seqirus, the largest influenza vaccine supplier in the UK, said it had seen a significant increase in demand but are ‘on track to provide more vaccines to the NHS than ever before’.
Helen Concilia, UK Country Head for Seqirus said: ‘We are experiencing very high demand for influenza vaccines across all markets and are increasing manufacturing to the extent possible at this stage in the production cycle.
‘The potential for the coronavirus pandemic to persist or resurge in the winter months makes influenza vaccination more important than ever this year.
‘Influenza vaccination will help to protect against seasonal influenza and minimise the burden of flu on the NHS, thus preserving capacity for Covid-19 patients. It will also reduce the risk of co-infection, especially among at-risk groups who appear most vulnerable to both influenza and Covid-19.’
The complexity of the flu vaccine supply chain, added to a global demand, will mean pharmacies and GPs could struggle to get enough doses, Alastair Buxton, director of NHS Services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said.
But he added: ‘Community pharmacy is already planning for the upcoming flu season, working closely with the NHS, so that priority groups for vaccination can get one.’