Community pharmacy leaders have welcomed the government’s decision to start the flu and Covid vaccination programmes earlier and increase the funding for the service.

But the last-minute ‘chaos’ will put additional pressure on pharmacy teams and lead to confusion for patients, one leader told The Pharmacist.

Yesterday the government announced that it would be bringing the start date of the flu and Covid vaccination service forward to September, following concern about a new Covid variant.

This comes after the flu service was originally expected to start in September, but was changed earlier this month to begin in October to align with Covid vaccinations. Following backlash, NHS England (NHSE) later conceded that pharmacies could be paid for jabs delivered in September where patients had already booked appointments.

‘Utter chaos’

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), told The Pharmacist that the announcements around the vaccination programme had been ‘utter chaos’ and ‘last minute, without any consideration for the time healthcare professionals need to prepare’.

‘We were concerned when the NHS management and [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] JCVI said earlier this month that the flu and Covid jab season was going to start from October, considering the reports about the new Covid variant and the issues that a late start would cause for uptake of vaccine and vaccine supply,’ she added.

Dr Hannbeck said that it was good to see the start date brought forwards and the fee – which she said was ‘too low’ – increased with the acceleration payments announced yesterday.

But she said that the ‘last minute’ communications about such a major service ‘cause extra pressure for pharmacy teams, particularly the new vaccination sites, and lead to confusion for patients’.

‘Pharmacies will be stepping up’

Nick Kaye, chair of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) welcomed the change to the commencement of the service following a ‘stumbling start’ and its calls for the September start to be reinstated.

Last week the organisation wrote to NHSE to warn of possible legal claims against the commissioner, aiming to send a clear message about ‘the need for due process in the future’ and hoping to persuade NHSE to revert to the original September start date.

‘The NPA criticised NHS England for its stumbling start to the flu and Covid campaign this year and called for an earlier start, so this announcement that the start date will be brought forward to early September is welcome and should support pharmacies in delivering a successful service,’ Mr Kaye told The Pharmacist following the latest news.

‘Community pharmacies gave record numbers of flu jabs last year and have been vital to the success of the NHS Covid vaccination programme too.  Pharmacists will be stepping up to save lives again this winter.’

And he added that the NPA would be reviewing the details published by NHSE yesterday and would be providing additional advice to pharmacies in the coming days.

‘Review funding for vaccination programmes’

Meanwhile, the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) has called for the government to start planning now for the vaccination programme next year, to ensure that pharmacies and the public are confident in the plans put in place.

‘Given the growing risk to public health, we encourage the government to review again the resource it puts into the vaccination programmes,’ Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the CCA said.

And he called for the ‘need to focus on delivering a successful programme this year’ following a ‘turbulent period for the vaccination programme’, in which ‘longstanding plans have been tested and uncertainty has plagued the programme’.

‘Community pharmacies stand ready to protect people across England from Covid and flu, through the vaccination programme,’ added Mr Harrison.

‘As with every other year, patients will be able to access their local pharmacy for vaccinations, at a time and place convenient for them.

‘Ensuring high uptake is crucial to protecting those most vulnerable in our population.’