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Free flu jabs will be offered to 30M people in UK this year in a bid to relieve pressure on NHS

The Government is aiming to double its winter flu vaccination programme in England to 30million people, with free jabs for everyone aged 50 and over and children aged 11.

Last year, around 15million people received a jab against seasonal flu but ministers hope this will rise to 30million this winter.

Experts are concerned about the impact of a double-whammy of Covid-19 cases and seasonal flu potentially overwhelming the NHS.

There are also worries that people could suffer both seasonal flu and Covid-19 at the same time. 

So the Department of Health and Social Care hopes that an increase in people getting flu vaccines means there will be fewer flu patients taking up space in hospitals and the NHS will have more time to deal with coronavirus patients.  

As part of an unprecedented drive, a free flu vaccine will also be available to:

  • People who are on the Shielded Patient List and members of their household;
  • All school year groups up to Year 7;
  • People aged over 65, pregnant women, those with pre-existing conditions including at-risk under 2s.

The Government is aiming to double its winter flu vaccination programme in England to 30 million people, with free jabs for those aged 50 and over and children aged 11 (stock picture) 

Once vaccination of the most ‘at-risk’ groups is well underway, the department will work with clinicians to decide when to open the programme to invite people aged 50-64, with further details to be announced. 

The NHS will contact people directly, including information about where to go to get the vaccine. 

At the moment, the free NHS flu programme is for people aged 65 and over, pregnant women, people with certain conditions such as kidney disease, asthma or heart disease and carers or those in care homes.

Frontline health and social care workers are also eligible to receive the flu vaccine. 

The flu jab is also free for children over six months with a long-term health condition, those aged two and three and those in primary school.

RESULTS FROM OXFORD UNIVERSITY VACCINE ARE ‘PROMISING’

Results from the first phase of clinical trials of Oxford’s vaccine were published on Tuesday in the British medical journal, The Lancet. 

They revealed that the Covid-19 vaccine had been given to 543 people out of a group of 1,077. 

The other half were given a meningitis jab so their reactions could be compared and scientists could be sure the effects of the coronavirus jab weren’t random.   

Researchers wanted to find out whether the vaccine boosted either of two types of immunity — antibodies, which are disease-fighting substances; and T-cell immunity, with T cells able to produce antibodies and also to attack viruses themselves.

The vaccine produced ‘strong’ responses on both accounts, the study found.

It showed that the T cell response aimed at the spike protein that appears on the outside of the coronavirus was ‘markedly increased’ in people who had had the jab, in tests of 43 of the participants. These responses peaked after 14 days and then declined before the end-point of the trial at 56 days. 

Antibody immunity, on the other hand, peaked after four weeks and remained high by day 56, the point at which the last measurement was taken, meaning it may well last for even longer. 

After 28 days, up to 100 per cent of a group of 35 people still had a strong enough ‘neutralising’ immune response to destroy the virus, researchers found.

A neutralising response means the immune system is able to destroy the virus and make it unable to infect the body.

The researchers could not test this on more people because they didn’t have enough time, they explained.

Scientists had to wait a month after vaccinating people, with many of them vaccinated in late May. And Sir Mene Pangalos, a vice-president of research and development at AstraZeneca, said the tests used were ‘very laborious’ so the team weren’t able to get more data in time for the paper.

Sir Mene added that the researchers were ‘veering towards a two-high-dose strategy’ because that seemed to be producing the strongest immune response. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘It’s mission critical that we pull out all the stops to get ready for winter, and the Prime Minister has already announced £3 billion to protect the NHS.

‘We are now taking another important step to help protect the wider public by giving the flu vaccination to more people than ever before. This will be the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and will help protect our NHS as we head into winter.

‘If you are eligible for a free vaccine, whether it’s for the first time or because you usually receive one, then I would urge you to get it, not just to protect yourself, but to protect the NHS and your loved ones, from flu.’

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the expansion of the vaccination programme was ‘sensible’.   

He said: ‘It is likely that Covid-19 will present challenges to delivering the flu programme – we will need to take measures to ensure all patients are safe when they come to get their vaccination, and we will need to ensure people, particularly in at risk groups, are confident in doing so.

‘If a COVID-19 vaccination is available for use then this will also need to be factored in. The College has developed guidance for GP practices to support them to deliver mass vaccination programmes efficiently and safely, whilst COVID-19 remains a threat.’ 

This announcement comes alongside the £3 billion for the NHS announced by the Prime Minister earlier this month to relieve winter pressures on A&E and emergency care in case of a second spike in infections. 

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty said: ‘Flu can have serious consequences and vulnerable people can die of it. Having the vaccine protects you, and helps reduce transmission to others.

‘This winter more than ever, with COVID-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks. Vaccinating more people will help reduce flu transmission and stop people becoming ill.’ 

Dr Vanessa Saliba, Head of Flu at Public Health England said: ‘The flu vaccine is the best defence we have against what can be a serious and even deadly illness.

‘This winter, more people than ever will be offered a free flu vaccine. We are urging anyone who is eligible to take up the offer of vaccination. By getting the jab, you can help protect yourself, your family and the NHS – it will help save lives.’

Dr Nikki Kanani, GP and NHS medical director for primary care, said: ‘Getting a free NHS flu vaccination is a quick and simple way that people can help to save lives and reduce pressure on our hardworking frontline staff this winter.

‘GPs, nurses, community pharmacists and others will be going to great lengths this year to give this vital protection to millions more people in a safe and convenient way, so when the time comes I would urge everyone invited for a flu vaccination to get it as soon as possible.’ 

Not all GP surgeries will have enough fridge space to accept all the doses of the vaccine that they will need.

However, the aim is that all those eligible will have had their vaccine by Christmas.

The Government hopes NHS and social care workers will see it as their professional responsibility to get the flu jab, but have not ruled out making it mandatory in future years.

During the winter 2019/2020 flu season, 72.4 per cent of people aged 65 and over got their jab in England, as did 44.9 per cent of those in high-risk groups aged six months to 64.

Overall, 74.3 per cent of frontline health workers had their jab.

The uptake figure is known to be much lower for social care staff.

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