Community Pharmacy England (CPE) has aired its frustrations over news that this year’s influenza vaccination campaign will likely see a ‘delayed start’ and that the fee paid to pharmacies for the service has not increased.

According to the negotiating body, the service fee will remain frozen at £9.58 for the 2023/24 season.

And it said NHS England’s (NHSE) vaccination team had communicated with pharmacies across the country that the start date for both the Covid and flu vaccine campaigns was anticipated for October 2023 – later than the usual 1 September start.

It comes after NHSE published the service specification for the 2023/24 Community Pharmacy Seasonal Influenza Vaccination Advanced Service last week, confirming the amended eligible patient cohorts and outlining how pharmacy owners must use an ‘NHS-assured point of care IT system’ for the service.

On the same day (4 August), NHSE published the service specification for the 2023/24 Covid vaccination programme, announcing a fee reduction of 25%.

‘Delayed start’

In a statement for the profession, CPE said the commencement date for the flu vaccination service would be announced by NHSE within its Primary Care Bulletin and that it was ‘likely to be in October’.

The start date would be informed by guidance given by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and it may include requirements related to the prioritisation of certain eligible cohorts of patients, CPE noted.

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS Services at CPE, said the body was ‘extremely frustrated’ that NHSE was now in charge of determining the start date for vaccinations, rather than the service beginning on 1 September, ‘as has previously been the case’.

‘We understand there may be a clinical rationale for a delayed start, subject to the advice of the JCVI, but it is not the behaviour of a responsible organisation to impose such a change without adequate prior notice being given to pharmacy owners,’ he added.

Mr Buxton highlighted the potential impact the delay would have on pharmacy teams and patients.

‘Notice should have been provided last year, so the change in policy could have been reflected in pharmacy owners’ vaccine orders for the season and in their plans for booking advance appointments for patients wanting to be vaccinated in September,’ he said.

‘When NHS England first proposed this change several weeks ago, we strongly objected to this, due to the lack of adequate notice, but they were not willing to listen to our arguments on the impact it would have on pharmacy owners and their teams, or on the patients who have already booked their vaccination appointments in September.’

Frozen fee

Funding for the flu vaccination service comes from the NHS vaccination budget and is in addition to and outside of global sum funding, noted CPE.

It said the service fee would remain frozen at £9.58 for 2023/24, plus the cost of the vaccine and an allowance for VAT on the cost of the medicine.

But Mr Buxton said the move failed to recognise the increased costs community pharmacy was experiencing.

‘Community pharmacy owners are facing impossible cost increases so it is deeply frustrating that NHS England – who have all the evidence they need on this – are refusing to recognise this in the flu vaccination fee,’ he said.

‘We will continue to make the case to the NHS for increased funding for the service in future years.’

He added that pharmacy owners and their teams ‘had a record-breaking flu vaccination season in 2022/23’, noting that ‘despite all the challenges they face, many will be working hard to repeat and build on that success in the season ahead, to help protect their patients and to support the wider NHS winter effort’.

NHSE and the government were approached for comment.