An influential group of MPs has recommended that pharmacists should play a ‘critical role’ in vaccine delivery to tackle challenges around access.

The Health and Social Care Committee (HSCC) highlighted low vaccination rates in England in particular, in a report published today as part of the committee’s inquiry into preventing ill-health.

And the committee said that it was ‘unacceptable’ that people were unable to take advantage of vaccinations due to practical challenges such as time and location.

Slow bureaucratic processes around setting up clinical trials were also a major cause for concern in terms of the UK’s involvement in developing the medicines of the future, the committee warned.

And it said that investment in the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and in future innovations – such as personalised cancer vaccinations – was needed.

Steve Brine MP, who chaired the committee, said that vaccination is ‘one of the greatest success stories when it comes to preventing infection’.

But he warned that the UK’s position as a global leader on vaccination ‘risks being lost’ if the government fails to address challenges around declining childhood immunisation rates and clinical trials.

NHS Digital data highlighted in the report showed that in England, in 2021/22, the 95% coverage target for childhood immunisations set by the World Health Organization (WHO) was not met across any of the vaccination programmes.

And England was the only UK nation where coverage rates were consistently below the UK average, which the report said was ‘clearly a call for concern’.

Mr Brine also said that the recent UK Health Security Agency warning about a potential measles outbreak in London, alongside recent spikes in cases in the capital and the West Midlands, ‘should be a massive wake-up call’ about the need to increase uptake of childhood immunisations.

He added that it was ‘alarming’ that industrial clinical trial activity in the UK was at its ‘lowest point to date’.

Challenges such as slow bureaucratic processes around setting up trials ‘must be fixed’ if the UK is to ‘make the most’ of its ‘world-leading academic and research expertise’, Mr Brine said.

‘Unacceptable’ that practical factors prevent uptake

‘It is unacceptable that there are people who are unable to take advantage of the important protection that vaccination offers due to practical challenges of time and location that can and must be addressed,’ the report said.

The committee said that it agreed with the suggestion made by Stuart Carroll, director of market access and policy affairs at Moderna, during the evidence session for the inquiry, that ‘pharmacists need to play a critical role in delivery of vaccines’ to improve access.

Mr Carroll told the committee that while pharmacists already deliver ‘a significant number of vaccines already’, there was a need to consider ‘how we can potentially expand that and increase flexibility and agility’.

The committee also took up the suggestion made by the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) that the potential for a non-traditional workforce, such as nursing and medical students and recently retired staff, to play a greater role in vaccine delivery should be explored.

And the HSCC recommended that the government carry out a consultation on amending legislation to make this possible.

Uptake could also be increased by targeting messaging around vaccination appropriately, recognising that discussions about healthcare can often happen with peers, rather than healthcare professionals, the report said.

And a localised approach through Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) was important to reach ‘the last 10%’ who were not taking up vaccinations.

The committee welcomed the promised NHS England vaccination and immunisation strategy, and said that this must include a focus on tackling practical challenges around access and set out how to make best use of the wide range of healthcare professionals able to administer vaccinations.

UK viewed as ‘unreliable and unpredictable’ partner in clinical trials

A recent review of clinical trial activity in the UK, highlighted in the committee’s report, found that the pharmaceutical industry views the UK as ‘an unreliable and unpredictable partner’.

‘Our approvals processes are theoretically competitive but inconsistent because of backlogs at the MHRA and unnecessary site-level approvals processes, which create delays,’ the 2023 Lord O’Shaughnessy review of commercial clinical trials in the UK found.

And it noted that one major global pharmaceutical company said that the UK was the ‘second slowest for setting up clinical trials’ of all the European countries it carried out research in.

‘This is clearly unacceptable for a country with our resources and ambitions,’ the Lord O’Shaughnessy review found.

The HSCC welcomed this review and the government’s ‘encouraging’ response of committing £3m funding to ‘rebuild capacity and deliver reduced turnaround time’, aiming to reach a 60-day turnaround time for all approvals.

And it said that it would be ‘keeping a watching brief’ on the government’s progress in implementing its recommendations ‘which we expect to be swift’.

This included recommendations to ‘address the absence of conversation about research from interactions between clinicians and patients and increase the profile and awareness of research among disadvantaged or marginalised groups’.

DHSC urges MMR vaccine uptake

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that it takes child health ‘very seriously’, adding that it is ‘important that everyone takes up the vaccinations to which they are entitled for themselves, their families and wider society.’

‘The UK has a world-leading offer and a national marketing campaign was launched in February 2022 to encourage uptake of both doses of the MMR vaccine in children under the age of 5 years, with an MMR catch-up campaign launched in October 2022,’ they said.

And they urged parents and carers to check that their children are up to date on their vaccines and to book an appointment to catch up if necessary.

CCA: community pharmacy has ‘amazing track record’ on vaccination

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, said that in the longer term, the CCA would want to see community pharmacy involved in all vaccination programmes and helping to drive uptake, especially in deprived communities.

He highlighted community pharmacy’s ‘amazing track record’ on vaccinations and said that the CCA estimates that the sector could free up at least a further 10 million GP vaccination appointments annually, on top of the more than five million flu vaccinations delivered through community pharmacy last year.