The number of vulnerable people getting free flu jabs in England is at an eight-year low, raising fears of an outbreak coinciding with a second wave of coronavirus.
Last winter just 45 per cent of people under 65 with serious health conditions, who are offered the vaccine for free on the NHS, received the jab.
This has tumbled from a peak of 52.3 per cent in the winter of 2013 and is the worst uptake since Public Health England’s records began in 2012.
This year the Government is organising the biggest ever flu vaccination programme for the UK, pledging to offer them to 30million people, including everyone over the age of 50 and 11-year-olds.
Officials hope that covering more of the at-risk groups with a flu jab will mean fewer people get seriously ill with the winter virus, which will relieve pressure on hospitals that are expected to face a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
But getting vaccinated against the flu is not compulsory and more than half of vulnerable adults currently do not take up the offer.
Coverage is better among the elderly, around three-quarters of whom get the vaccine, but the NHS also recommends it for pregnant women, diabetics, those with serious illnesses like heart disease, children and severely overweight people.
In Britain the flu vaccine is offered for free to people over the age of 65, under the age of 11, and to those with serious medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or severe asthma
Public Health England data shows that vaccine coverage in vulnerable categories under the age of 65 has fallen dramatically between 2012 and 2020.
In the winter of 2012-13, more than half of people (51.3 per cent) took up the offer of the free vaccine, and this peaked the next year at 52.3 per cent.
But since then, the number of vulnerable adults agreeing to have the jab has fallen to a low of 44.9 per cent in the winter of 2019-20.
Coverage among over-65s has also fallen slightly, although remains significantly higher than it is in the younger age groups.
Vaccine uptake among the elderly was at a peak of 73.4 per cent – three out of four people – in 2012-13.
But it has since dropped to 72.4 per cent, rebounding from a low of 70.5 per cent in 2016-17.
HOW MANY PEOPLE GET THE FLU JAB?
Public Health England data for England only.
Thousands of people end up in hospital every year because of bad cases of flu, which can progress to pneumonia and kill people who already have weak immune systems.
In a bid to avoid this, and to protect the NHS while it prepares to deal with a second wave of coronavirus, the UK Government is this year hoping to scale up its flu jab programme to include a staggering 30million people – almost half the population.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has boasted officials ‘have bought more flu vaccine than ever before’.
But for the drive to work it will rely on people agreeing to be vaccinated and going to get it done at their local doctor’s surgery.
Experts say that low uptake may in part be due to people not taking seriously the flu viruses, which circulate every winter and is mild for many people.
‘People think the flu is not that bad… even for people who are in the risk groups,’ Dr Tonia Thomas, of Oxford University’s Vaccine Knowledge Trust, told the BBC.
‘They are leading healthy lives in terms of day-to-day living. I have spoken to patients who say they forgot they are in a risk group.
‘It is only when they contract an infection that they realise their body responds differently to other people’s.’
More than 8,000 people died of flu in England between September 2019 and February 2020. Covid-19 killed the same amount of people in England in just 10 days, during the darkest days of the outbreak in April.
This winter’s flu drive is expected to be so large – and also delivered in a socially distanced way – that ministers are considering training more health workers to carry out the jabs and to make it possible to get them on a drive-through basis.
NHS England is planning to make vaccination centres which are modelled on the drive-through Covid-19 testing areas, which could pop up in GP surgery car parks.
The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, wrote a letter to GPs and other NHS bosses which said they should look at ‘social-distancing innovations, such as drive-in vaccinations and ”car as waiting room” models’, The Times reported this month.
He added that the option to be vaccinated at home should be considered to help those who are shielding.
The Government hopes to be able to immunise 30million people, taking in everyone over the age of 50 even if they are otherwise healthy.
But healthy people between 50 and 64 are only expected to get the jab if there are enough supplies.
People over 65 and the other groups will be given priority.
The Government has said it bought enough stock to vaccinate 75 per cent of eligible people which would be about 22million.
The scheme could also be extended to anyone living with someone who had to shield during the Covid-19 crisis, and to school pupils in Year 7.
Flu vaccines, which change every year as the viruses mutate and different ones come into circulation, do not offer any protection against Covid-19.
WHO IS ALREADY ELIGIBLE FOR A FREE FLU VACCINE?
In 2020/21, the current year, groups eligible for the NHS-funded flu vaccination programme include the same groups as last year:
- All over-65s;
- People under 65 who have serious, long-term health conditions such as diabetes, severe asthma, heart disease, kidney disease, or people undergoing cancer treatment;
- Pregnant women;
- 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 because of the coronavirus epidemic, the Government is expanding eligibility for the free vaccine in a bid to reduce the number of people who get infected with flu and relieve pressure on NHS hospitals.
This is set to include:
- All children aged two to 11 years old;
- Everyone over the age of 50;
- Close contacts of immunocompromised individuals;
- Health and social care staff employed by a registered residential care home.