All children under the age of nine will be offered the flu jab for free next year, health officials have ordered.
The new Government guidance follows the brutal outbreak that swept the UK this winter that was shown to be the worst in seven years.
Youngsters in year five will be added onto the list of children who receive the vaccine, which is administered as a nasal spray, on the NHS for the first time.
The move has been signed by the heads of NHS England, Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care.
Youngsters between two and eight, or year four, are offered the nasal spray vaccine each year since the NHS launched a programme in 2013.
Nearly two million children across England received the jab between September and January this year, according to health service figures.
But the new scheme will see roughly 600,000 more children offered the vaccine, which protects against four strains of flu.
New Government guidance follows the brutal outbreak that swept the UK that was shown to be the worst in seven years
THE FLU SEASON OF 2017/18 AND WHY IT WAS SO SEVERE
The rocketing number of flu cases in the UK and across the world was put down to a surge in four aggressive subtypes that attacked the population simultaneously.
One included the so-called ‘Aussie flu’, a strain of influenza A which triggered triple the number of expected cases in Australia during the country’s winter.
Experts feared the virulent H3N2 strain, which reached the UK, could prove as deadly to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed one million people.
Another was a strain of influenza B, called Yamagata and dubbed ‘Japanese flu’, which was blamed for the majority of cases during the UK’s winter.
Its rapid spread raised concerns because it was not covered in a vaccine given to the elderly. However, experts claim it was less severe.
Usually, just one subtype, of either influenza A or B, is responsible for the majority of cases. The bug spreads easily in the cold weather.
The document reads: ‘The last season’s higher level of flu activity is an important reminder that flu can have a significant impact and is highly unpredictable.
‘This year saw record flu vaccination levels, with nearly one and a half million more people getting the vaccination than last year.’
The guidance, which has been sent to all GPs and pharmacists, added: ‘We should strive to further improve vaccine uptake rates in all eligible cohorts next year.’
WHAT FLU STRAINS ARE IN THE UK IN 2018?
There are many different types of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen in Britain this winter.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter, with at least 63 confirmed cases seen in official laboratories.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year, with at least 50 cases confirmed in labs. In the past it was commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time last winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected. This strain has been seen in at least 63 lab cases so far this winter.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just around four confirmed cases.
It was signed by chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, director of Public Health England, Professor Paul Cosford, and NHS England director Professor Stephen Powls.
Officials have also recommended next winter the over-65s are given a new trivalent vaccine, which protects against two A strains and one B strain.
The injection, called Fluad, has been used by other European countries for the last 20 years. It costs £9.79 – more than the £8 quadrivalent jab.
However, the quadrivalent jab offers protection against one extra strain of influenza B, which will be another type of ‘Japanese’ or ‘Phuket’ flu.
PHE figures show nearly 7.5 million over-65s received their free flu jab this winter.
This means the NHS will spend around £13.4 million more on giving at-risk patients the new jab, if the same amount of people are vaccinated.
However, the vaccine will only protect against H1N1, H3N2 and a B strain called ‘Colorado’, meaning another strain could cause havoc.
Concerned medics recently blamed similar cost-cutting measures on fuelling the winter crisis, which Jeremy Hunt admitted was the ‘worst ever’.
Leaked documents obtained during the winter months suggested GPs were put under pressure to purchase the cheaper jabs.
It came amid reports of crisis conditions at NHS hospitals, with the number of confirmed deaths recorded in January from all causes so far reaching 55,964 – almost 13 per cent above average.
According to the Office for National Statistics the majority of deaths were among the elderly, although it will be months before it is confirmed how many succumbed to flu.
All adults over the age of 65, pregnant women, carers and any adults or infants with weakened immune systems will still be given the flu vaccine on the NHS.
Others will have to go private to get vaccinated.
The flu season in the UK and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere tends to mirror what has happened in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere.
The same strains of the virus will circulate north in time for the British flu season, which typically begins in November and lasts until March.
Flu viruses are constantly changing proteins on their surface to avoid detection by the body’s immune system – making it more deadly.