All over-50s in Britain could get the flu jab on the NHS this winter, under plans reportedly being considered by ministers to cope with a second wave of Covid-19.
Government advisers have already recommended that Number 10 contemplate vaccinating the ‘entire population’ against flu in an effort to free up hospital beds.
Insiders now say Downing St is planning to buy 10million extra doses for over-50s — but have warned delivering the jabs could be a logistical nightmare.
One source claimed expanding the scheme could involve Brits getting vaccinated in car parks and at drive-through centres – the same way coronavirus testing is done.
Leading scientists fear the coronavirus could wreak havoc on the health service if it returns this winter, striking alongside the flu when hospitals are already swamped.
Free flu jabs are usually reserved for over-65s, pregnant women, primary school children and people with serious illnesses like asthma or heart or kidney disease.
It comes after 16 leading medics last night warned Britain faces a ‘real risk’ of being hit by a second wave of the coronavirus in the colder months.
Government advisers have already recommended Number 10 contemplates vaccinating the ‘entire population’ against flu, in an effort to free up hospital beds
Last winter 25million people in England were offered the flu jab, with officials expanding the annual vaccination programme to include all Year Six children for the first time.
All over-65s, pregnant women, NHS workers and people with serious long-term illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s are eligible for the free jab.
Figures show there are around 10million people aged between 50 and 65 in the UK, meaning the vaccination scheme would have to increase by 40 per cent in size to catch all of them.
WHO IS ALREADY ELIGIBLE FOR A FREE FLU VACCINE?
In 2020/21 groups eligible for the NHS funded flu vaccination programme are currently the same as last year.
- Over-65s and people with diabetes and chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma;
- People with serious heart or kidney disease, or people undergoing cancer treatment;
- Parents with children aged over six months with asthma or diabetes or weakened immunity due to disease or treatment;
- Other groups include residents in long-stay care homes and people who have lowered immunity due to HIV or are on steroid medication;
- NHS workers are also urged to get a free flu jab in order to protect patients.
But according to a joint letter issued from the DHSC, Public Health England and, NHS England and Improvement, on May 14, the list may change if the programme is expanded this year.
This could include:
- All children aged two to 10 years old (but not 11 years or older);
- Those aged six months to under 65 years in clinical risk groups;
- Close contacts of immunocompromised individuals;
- Health and social care staff employed by a registered residential care home;
The letter added: ‘We anticipate that concerns about COVID-19 may increase demand for flu vaccination in all groups this year.’
The flu jab — designed to fight off four different strains of influenza expected to circulate — offers no protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.
Experts say the point of rolling out more flu jabs is to ease the burden on the health service, which Number 10 feared could have been overwhelmed in the first wave.
Most people who get the flu escape with only a mild illness but patients struck down with a severe bout can be hospitalised. Seasonal flu has a mortality rate of around 0.1 per cent.
One government adviser — Imperial College London’s Professor Peter Openshaw — raised the idea of flu shots for the entire population in April, saying it was ‘something to be considered’.
Professor Openshaw, part of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), said a bad flu season with coronavirus ‘would be a huge burden on the NHS’.
But the Health Service Journal reports that any move to vaccinate the whole of Britain will probably be ruled out because of the lack of available vaccines.
Pharmaceutical company Sanofi has already admitted it has been asked by many countries, including the UK, about ‘the possibility to provide additional’ vaccines.
A spokesperson for the company — one of the top NHS suppliers of flu jabs — said: ‘We are actively seeing what more can be done to meet additional demand, but it will be a challenge.’
A senior source, who the HSJ described as being well-placed to comment, said: ‘The government is considering extending the vaccine to over 50s.
‘But they will struggle to buy enough vaccines to do that. They are likely holding out on announcing it as they want to be sure they can fulfil the promise.’
They added: ‘I have no idea how the government will deliver on this promise. The logistical exercise required to do so will be very tough.
‘There will need to create a similar system to that used by the testing system, perhaps by using car parks again and doing drive-through vaccinations.’
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘The flu vaccination programme will be a crucial part of preparing the UK for winter.
‘We have already indicated in the annual flu letter published last month that the flu programme may be expanded this season.’
The tell-tale symptoms of Covid-19 — a fever, cough and the loss of smell or taste — could be mistaken for the flu, which has similar effects and is much worse than a common cold.
There is a very ‘real risk’ of a second wave of coronavirus striking the UK and the Government must start to prepare for it now, 16 leading medics (pictured) have warned in a letter to the Prime Minister
This could cause confusion among the population. If they have the coronavirus, they may think they only have the flu if they have not been given a vaccine to protect them.
And dishing out the flu vaccine — which only 70 per cent of eligible NHS staff accepted last year — could prevent thousands of people from needing NHS treatment.
ARE VIRUSES STRONGER IN THE WINTER?
Although the coronavirus hasn’t been around long enough for scientists to study whether it changes in the winter, looking at cold and flu viruses – which are most common in colder months – can shed some light on how viruses are more infectious in winter.
Dry, cold air supports viruses
For a virus that causes infection by piggy-backing on droplets of moisture coming out of someone’s airways, like Covid-19, its ability to float in the air is critical for infecting people.
Warmer air is more humid, meaning it has more moisture and droplets in the air bind to the droplets carrying the virus. This makes them bigger and heavier and causes them to fall to the ground faster, where they are significantly less likely to infect someone.
In cold air, which is naturally drier, they can remain lighter and float for longer, meaning they’re more likely to spread disease.
Flu virus gets physically harder
A study in 2008 found that the outer membrane, or shell, of a flu virus actually gets harder in cold weather.
It turns from a more liquid blob in warm weather to a tough, rubbery coating in the winter. This means the virus is stronger and can survive for longer.
There is no evidence the same thing will happen with the coronavirus, because it is a different type of organism – but it is possible.
Human behaviour changes
Viruses can spread more effectively in winter because people spend more time together indoors, where they are forced into closer contact than they would be in the park in summer.
The closer together people are, the more likely they are to spread the virus between them.
People are also more likely to get too little vitamin D in the winter, because they usually make it from exposing their skin to sunlight.
Shorter daylight hours – and cold weather even when the sun is shining – mean people don’t make as much of the vitamin, which is vital fuel for the immune system and helps the body to fight off viral infections.
Studies have found Covid-19 patients with vitamin D deficiencies appear to be more likely to be hospitalised or die than those with enough of the vitamin.
During the peak of Britain’s coronavirus crisis, around 3,500 people were being admitted to hospital with Covid-19 each day. The disease is estimated to be up to eight times deadlier than flu.
Studies have suggested any second wave will be deadlier than the first, adding to data showing the second bout of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was much more lethal than its predecessor.
Britain’s first wave has fizzled out but the infection is still circulating. Nearly 43,000 people have died after testing positive for the disease — but other grim figures show the real death toll is closer to 55,000.
Imperial College London modelling warned the death toll could have been closer to 500,000, had ministers let the virus spread uncontrollably through the nation.
Infectious disease experts say that because so few Britons have been struck down with Covid-19, which began to spiral out of control in the UK in March, the threat of a second wave is real.
Britain is also currently nowhere near having herd immunity to the coronavirus, with government testing surveys suggesting 5.4 per cent of people in England have had the illness.
This is equal to around 3.02million people. Sixty per cent coverage — thought to be the amount of the population needed for herd immunity — would be the equivalent of 33.6million people across the country.
Cold and flu viruses are known to thrive in the winter — and scientists fear the coronavirus may also prove to be more of a problem in the colder months.
Experts are cautious about whether Covid-19 poses a bigger threat in the winter, however. The disease has only been known to science for six months, meaning little is yet known about the pathogen.
Sixteen leading medics last night called for the government to prepare for a second wave of coronavirus, saying the threat needed ‘rapid attention’.
Leading surgeons, doctors, psychiatrists, scientists, nurses, other medical professionals and the editors of Britain’s best medical journals put their names to a letter to officials.
In a piece in the British Medical Journal, they said No 10 must get ‘ahead of the curve’ before the virus rebounds and focus on areas of weakness that could be improved while it is in retreat.
Things needing ‘rapid attention’ were supplies of medical equipment, testing and tracing infrastructure, the disproportionate effect on ethnic minority people, and international co-operation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned last week that a second wave of coronavirus could hit this autumn and urged nations to develop successful test and trace programmes.
Dr Hans Kluge, the UN agency’s European regional director, stressed that contact tracing and quarantining people potentially infected was ‘an essential element’ of strategy.
Boris Johnson’s medical and science chief advisers both warned last night Britain will continue to be plagued by coronavirus until next spring.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned there is no evidence of the virus burning itself out.