More than one in 10 eligible patients had their flu and Covid jabs within the first two weeks of the vaccination campaign, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said.

Speaking to press last week, UKHSA said that over three million people out of an eligible population of 30 million had received their flu vaccination, as well as more than two million people out of an eligible population of 20 million for the Covid booster.

And in a statement published on Sunday about the new BA.2.86 variant, UKHSA said that vaccination was likely to provide continued protection and that it would continue to monitor vaccine effectiveness in the population throughout the winter.

The community pharmacy sector has reported a mixed start to the service, with good uptake from pharmacies and patients amid ongoing issues with the rollout.

Pharmacy teams ‘doing their best’ despite ‘chaotic’ start

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) said that the vaccination programme this year had been ‘chaotic’.

‘Despite this, pharmacy teams are doing their best to deliver the service as they always do,’ she told The Pharmacist.

The flu vaccination season was expected to begin in September this year, with Covid vaccinations set to begin in October. However, in August the start date of the flu vaccination programme was changed to October, before the start dates of both services were ultimately changed to September.

Gareth Jones, head of corporate affairs at the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said that ‘despite the confusion around the start dates for this year’s vaccination programme’, community pharmacies were ‘responding positively to the population’s needs by taking part’.

‘Our members are, once again, going to be a key part of the NHS flu vaccination programme. They have shown themselves to be highly adaptable and willing to help despite the shifting goalposts,’ he told The Pharmacist.

One community pharmacist, Olivier Picard, who runs several vaccination sites, told The Pharmacist that the ‘erratic’ start had been frustrating, having had to cancel booked vaccination staff and then find other vaccinators when the start date changed. ‘It's completely unsettling at a time where we already so busy with other things,’ he said.

Mixed access to Covid vaccinations

While some community pharmacies have already received their vaccination stocks, others are yet to do so.

And with a lower reimbursement fee for the vaccine this year and a recent change in the recommended Covid vaccine there seems to be variability in what different providers are offering.

Mr Picard told The Pharmacist that some general practices in his area were inviting their patients to book a flu vaccination but were not offering the Covid booster.

‘I just don't understand that. It takes twice as many appointments to vaccinate the population,’ he said.

Mr Picard added that he was ‘disappointed’ that the local approach had not been more joined up, as he ‘would have planned differently’ had he known that other local providers would not be offering the Covid vaccination.

He said that the decision by local GPs not to offer the Covid vaccination means that other providers ‘have a bigger task on our hand’, though he added that community pharmacies were ‘rising to the challenge’.

Mr Picard also said that some sites had received the latest recommended vaccine, while others were continuing to vaccinate with an older batch and did not know exactly when they would receive it.

And he said that some patients had asked whether the vaccination site was using the latest vaccine, with a couple rebooking an appointment for when the newer vaccination was expected to be available. ‘It's a little bit of a weird situation,’ Mr Picard said.

Issues with onboarding process for new Covid vaccination sites

One pharmacy contractor who wanted to remain anonymous told The Pharmacist they had experienced a slow process being onboarded as a new vaccination site, echoing previously raised concerns.

In particular, they highlighted issues with accessing the relevant computer systems.

They said that their branches were still waiting to be able to access the system needed to record any vaccines supplied and did not have a confirmed date as to when this would be sorted, despite having already told patients a provision start date for the service.

They said: ‘We have had a really successful start to our flu campaign and if the NHS teams were set up to get us started on the 18th of September, as advised in the communication about bringing the vaccinations forward, we [would] have not missed out on three weeks of Covid vaccinations. We would have done this at an accelerated pace, but have been held back by the onboarding process.’

And they added: ‘We had no idea what was going on or why everything was so slow. It appears that the NHS teams were caught out by the announcement to bring the campaign forward and not set up to deal with this or the volume of new sites to be processed.

‘I have no doubt that when we go live with Covid vaccinations, our teams will run with it and be successful, but it shouldn’t have taken this long to get set up and it will ultimately increase the risk of the vulnerable to the impact of a Covid infection.’