The flu vaccination programme in England has been moved from September to October this year in order to maximise vaccine effectiveness.

Based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the government has asked community pharmacies to deliver most flu vaccines from October, with an exact start date to be confirmed by NHS England ‘in due course’.

However, some patient groups should still be vaccinated from 1 September, including pregnant women, children aged two or three, and primary and secondary school aged children.

The government has said vaccinating eligible groups ‘closer to the time that the flu season commonly starts’ will ‘provide optimal protection’.

The annual flu letter for 2024/25 said: ‘Based on the evidence that flu vaccine’s effectiveness can wane over time in adults JCVI have advised moving the start of the programme for most adults to the beginning of October.’

Given that flu circulation in children ‘normally precedes that in adults’, the JCVI advised the government to continue with a September start date.

Providers are ‘expected to deliver a 100% offer’ to these eligible groups, and must ensure they ‘make firm plans to equal or improve uptake rates’ this year, according to the letter.

And they must use the specific flu vaccines outlined in the letter in order to receive payment and reimbursement, with second line vaccines to only be considered when every attempt to use first line recommended vaccines has been exhausted.

Rosie Taylor, head of service development at Community Pharmacy England (CPE) said that while the letter from NHSE had come 'later than planned', it's publication was 'welcomed to allow pharmacy owners to finalise their vaccine orders for the 2024/25 flu vaccination season'.

'We would encourage pharmacy owners, to read the letter and make sure they consider the changes to the timing of the service and the reinforced advice regarding the use of second line vaccines as part of their forward planning and vaccine procurement,' she said.

James Davies, Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) director for England highlighted the 'integral' role that community pharmacies play in the national influenza vaccination campaign, 'providing millions of vaccines annually in convenient locations'.

'It’s crucial for pharmacy teams to be included in planning from the outset and to have parity with other healthcare professions delivering the service,' he said.

And he added that while the timely communication of the programme had been 'positive', 'we hope to avoid the confusion seen in previous years due to last minute changes to start dates.'

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Company Chemists' Association (CCA) welcomed the 'early clarity' around this year's start date and said they understood the rationale of ensuring the vaccine would be as effective as possible during peak flu season.

'The confusion and uncertainty caused by the last-minute changes to last year’s programme will have undoubtedly played a part in lower uptake rates in 2023/24. We are delighted that NHS England have listened to providers and made clear their commissioning intentions earlier in the planning process,' they added.

'We continue to ask policymakers to provide as much notice as possible regarding all aspects of the National Flu Immunisation Programme, so providers have sufficient time to prepare.'

Last year's flu vaccination season was expected to begin in September 2023, with Covid vaccinations set to begin in October. However, in August 2023 the start date of the flu vaccination programme was changed to October, before the start dates of both services were ultimately changed to September following the identification of a new Covid variant.

At the time, CPE criticised the ‘shambolic start’ to the vaccination programme, which it said had a ‘seemingly endlessly changing timetable’ that left community pharmacies with little time to prepare.

And community pharmacy contractors told The Pharmacist that the last-minute change of date 'backfired' on their careful planning. 

In December, NHSE said it would examine the case for central procurement of adult flu vaccines.

A version of this article first appeared on our sister publication Pulse.

Flu vaccination eligibility 2024 to 2025

From 1 September 2024:

  • pregnant women
  • all children aged 2 or 3 years on 31 August 2024
  • primary school aged children (from Reception to Year 6)
  • secondary school aged children (from Year 7 to Year 11)
  • all children in clinical risk groups aged from 6 months to less than 18 years

From October 2024, exact start date to be confirmed by NHS England in due course:

  • those aged 65 years and over
  • those aged 18 years to under 65 years in clinical risk groups (as defined by the Green Book, Influenza Chapter 19)
  • those in long-stay residential care homes
  • carers in receipt of carer’s allowance, or those who are the main carer of an elderly or disabled person
  • close contacts of immunocompromised individuals
  • frontline workers in a social care setting without an employer led occupational health scheme including those working for a registered residential care or nursing home, registered domiciliary care providers, voluntary managed hospice providers and those that are employed by those who receive direct payments (personal budgets) or Personal Health budgets, such as Personal Assistants

Source: Department of Health and Social Care