Fresh calls have been made for community pharmacies to become the ‘first port of call’ for vaccination programmes amid concerns over measles outbreaks in England.

The appeals follow the launch of a new NHS MMR catch-up campaign, for children aged six to 11 who still require the vaccine, which does not currently involve community pharmacies.

NHS England’s (NHSE) new catch-up campaign was set up in response to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) declaring a national incident based on rising cases of measles and outbreaks in the West Midlands and Yorkshire.

The UKHSA’s annual figures showed that in England MMR vaccine uptake for first and second doses by five years had fallen to the lowest rates since 2010/11.

In a statement from health minister Maria Caulfield earlier this week, she said GP practices were being supported to ‘improve MMR uptake’ and that pop-up clinics and school vaccination programmes would be run in areas with outbreaks and where there were high numbers of at-risk individuals.

Speaking in parliament, Health and Social Care Committee chair and Winchester MP Steve Brine pushed the minister to commit to a ‘more flexible delivery model’ for vaccinations, including through pharmacies.

While reiterating the use of extra clinics, GP practices and schools, Ms Caulfield said: ‘My honourable friend is right about using pharmacy, with Pharmacy First as a model, to make it even easier for people to come forward, but the real barrier is people’s reluctance to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons.’

She cited ‘vaccine fatigue’ following the Covid pandemic, or families missing routine appointments as potential reasons for low uptake, and said the Department of Health and Social Care was working alongside local authorities and the Department for Education ‘to try to make it as easy as possible for children and adults to get vaccinated’.

Chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) Dr Leyla Hannbeck said with an appropriate commissioning agreement in place, community pharmacies should become the ‘first port of call for vaccination programmes’.

This was because pharmacies ‘provide accessibility’ to patients and ‘have experience of vaccinating and have demonstrated how effective they are in doing this’.

‘We have always said we are keen to support the NHS. But any service provided through community pharmacy must be commissioned appropriately to allow time and headroom for community pharmacy teams to prepare,’ added Dr Hannbeck.

Community Pharmacy England (CPE) said there were no national or local NHS services, that it was aware of, that currently allowed pharmacists to administer MMR jabs – though the vaccine was available from some pharmacies privately.

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS Services at CPE, said: ‘Subject to the right funding and support being provided, community pharmacy could become the home of vaccinations.’

He pointed to CPE’s Vision for Community Pharmacy blueprint which supported this and recommended that ‘pharmacies expand their services to provide a wide range of vaccinations’.

Whilst the negotiator believed that the commissioning of vaccination programmes, such as flu and Covid-19, ‘should continue to be facilitated nationally’, it agreed with the ‘direction of travel’ in the recently published NHS vaccination strategy.

He added that, as set out in NHSE’s strategy, integrated care boards (ICBs) ‘could be better enabled to commission other vaccination services from pharmacies, improving access for all and helping to reduce health inequalities’.

NHSE’s vaccination plan, published in December, designated community pharmacy as a ‘core’ setting for adult seasonal vaccinations and said local systems were expected to ‘enable community pharmacy to play a greater role’ within this. It also suggested responsibility for commissioning vaccination services be delegated from NHSE to ICBs.

As reported earlier this week, NHSE warned community pharmacies were among the ‘most likely’ places to encounter a case of measles and must wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when dealing with suspected cases.

An NHS spokesperson said: 'The NHS is contacting millions of parents and carers of children to book their children in for an appointment with a GP for their missed MMR vaccine to tackle the current resurgence of measles, and more widely the NHS continues to explore ways of pharmacies delivering vaccines to children.'