The pharmacy and vaccines ministers must take urgent action to prevent the potential delay to the flu vaccination programme start date, Community Pharmacy England (CPE) has urged.

The flu vaccination service specification, published on Friday, gives NHS England (NHSE) the power to set a delayed start for the service, instead of the usual 1 September date.

The community pharmacy negotiator said in a statement that there was now ‘a very real risk that pharmacy owners and their teams will be unable to manage their workload this winter or recoup the investment they have made sourcing vaccines in good faith’.

It added: ‘This is a completely unacceptable – and entirely avoidable – situation for a commissioner to put pharmacies, or indeed any service providers, in.’

CPE has written to pharmacy minister Neil O’Brien and vaccines minister Maria Caulfield to ask them for ‘urgent intervention’ to reverse the decision to allow a change to the start date for the service.

It said that ‘the timely vaccination of around one million people is at stake’.

And it added that ‘the government and NHS England should not action any advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) about starting flu vaccination later than 1 September because of the overriding concern about the lack of prior notice given to providers’.

And if the timing of the service was to be changed, this should be considered for next year instead, with adequate time for providers to plan, the negotiator said.

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at CPE, said that while pharmacy owners were ‘used to delays in the publication of the service specification’, they ‘don’t usually come with such a fundamental change to how the service operates’.

‘Changing the start date of a service is a substantial amendment that needs careful consideration and plenty of notice given to both service providers and users – neither of which NHS England did, despite the evidence that we have provided to them on this issue,’ he said.

Mr Buxton added: ‘Making an announcement just four weeks before the usual 1 September start is completely irresponsible and once again pharmacy teams will be left to face the wrath of the public through no fault of their own.’

And he called for pharmacy owners to join CPE’s campaign to ask the government to reverse the decision.

CPE has issued template emails for contractors to send to their local MP about the issue.

National Pharmacy Association (NPA) chair Nick Kaye echoed CPE's concerns.

He said that it 'makes no sense' to 'throw a previously successful NHS scheme into confusion by delaying the start date'.

He said: 'Millions of people chose to get their flu jabs at a pharmacy last year.

'If this change goes ahead, thousands of appointments will have to be cancelled and pre-ordered stock will go to waste.

'Temporary staff who have been appointed to help deliver the service in September will need to be stood down.

'People who want to do the right thing by protecting themselves as soon as possible from this nasty illness now have to wait.

'NHS England should urgently rethink and reinstate the September start date without delay.

'After the increasing success of pharmacy-based vaccinations in recent years and given the inflationary pressures on contractors, it is also very disappointing that NHS England is reducing the Covid fee and flattening the flu payment.

'The reduction in fees for doing Covid jabs is extremely disappointing, remembering the heroic contribution of the pharmacy sector at the height of the pandemic. The service is no easier or cheaper to provide than it was before.

'Operationally, financially and in terms of pharmacies’ reputation as a convenient access point for preventative care, it’s a really bad move to shift the goalposts like this, quite apart from the impact for patients and the public.

'Overall, this is highly demotivating for hard pressed pharmacy contractors who have proven themselves to be effective at delivering these important clinical services.'

The Company Chemists' Association (CCA) also voiced its support for CPE.

Dr Nick Thayer, Head of Policy at the CCA said: 'Community pharmacy offers an amazing vaccination service to patients, which has grown annually since initial commissioning. Every year planning starts before Christmas, considering the required workforce, logistics, and predicted patient need. Community pharmacies want to provide the best service for their patients to protect them and their loved ones against influenza.

It is too late to make fundamental changes to the flu programme. It risks vaccine uptake, whilst putting intolerable pressure on already stretched pharmacies and pharmacy teams. NHSE must reflect upon this and begin the programme as intended at the start of September.'

When The Pharmacist approached the government for their response to the letter, it declined to comment, saying that the rollout of vaccination programmes was an operational matter for the NHS.

NHSE declined to comment.