Britain may be forced to scrap flu shots because of the decision to delay the campaign, pharmacists fear.
Typically, the annual NHS vaccination campaign begins on September 1.
But health chiefs have announced that this fall’s campaign, which has been greatly reduced, will not start until October. Officials are trying to set up more clinics to offer the flu shot at the same time as the covid shots.
Community Pharmacy England, which represents England’s 11,000 community pharmacies, is now demanding a U-turn on the last-minute delay.
Writing to health ministers Neil O’Brien and Maria Caulfield, the CPE said: “We believe it irresponsible to publish the details of a completely predictable service, including a substantial change to the start date, so late.”
Flu shots will only be offered to people 65 and older this winter, health chiefs confirmed yesterday. In an attempt to “get back to normal,” invitations will not be distributed to millions of people ages 50 to 64 who were eligible during the pandemic.
Officials originally planned to reduce the annual release to only those over 65, despite warnings that the ‘shortsighted’ move would leave millions vulnerable this winter. But yesterday they also revealed that they were preparing for the immunization campaign to start in October, a month later than usual. However, pharmacists fear that the decision could affect the supply by the time the program begins.
The decision means pharmacies have to reschedule appointments, causing “distress and frustration” for hundreds of thousands of patients, he added.
The CPE also warned that pharmacies, which administer the bulk of flu shots each winter, may not have the “capacity” to squeeze millions of appointments into one less month.
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told MailOnline the decision to delay implementation carried a “huge risk” of waste.
Reserved stock, which must be reserved months in advance of flu vaccine rollout, may not be depleted in the time available.
Dr Hannbeck said: ‘This is all last minute.
It is unclear why the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) and England’s NHS are waiting until the last minute to announce their decisions.
‘They never involve us and leave us to deal with the last minute planning.
‘If they have discovered that it is better to co-administer the flu and covid vaccines at the same time, then they should communicate this before, not at the last moment.
“This is a total lack of respect for healthcare professionals who are already overburdened and need time to plan.”
Nick Kaye, president of the National Pharmacies Association, said the decision to delay the launch start date is “nonsense” and leads to confusion in a “previously successful NHS scheme”.
He added: ‘Millions of people chose to get their flu shot at a pharmacy last year.
“If this change goes ahead, thousands of appointments will have to be canceled and reserved stock will go to waste.
“Temporary staff who have been designated to help deliver the service in September will need to be removed.”
He added: ‘People who want to do the right thing by protecting themselves from this nasty disease as soon as possible now have to wait.
‘NHS England must urgently rethink and reset the September start date without delay’.
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at CPE, said “patients will pay the price”.
He told MailOnline: “Common sense must win and the NHS should reverse this decision to make a major change without having provided adequate advance warning.”
‘If they don’t, pharmacies and their patients will pay the price.
‘It will take time to rebook appointments and some pharmacies are likely to be left with vaccines that they simply cannot use in the time available.
“Pharmacies are already under immense pressure and simply cannot afford to pick up the operational and financial pieces of poor NHS decision-making.”
Similarly, a delay in the start of the immunization campaign could mean that more than a million people “whom pharmacies would vaccinate in September” are forced to wait longer, he warned.
“It will inevitably cause a lot of frustration for patients and reduce the ability of pharmacies to provide other important healthcare services,” he added.
Last week, UKHSA analysts estimated that Covid positivity rates rose to 5.4 per cent, compared to the previous week, which itself saw a 3.7 per cent increase. Leading experts fear that the outbreak will continue to accelerate in the coming weeks as part of the natural cycle of the virus.
Authorities say they are “closely” monitoring the spread of the virus. However, the UK is no longer publishing daily infection numbers because too little testing is being done post-pandemic.
For those who are not eligible for a free NHS flu shot, private flu vaccination clinics for adults are offered for as little as £12.
Private clinics are now likely to start rolling out flu shots online with the NHS service.
The JCVI, which guides ministers on vaccine rollouts, published advice yesterday setting out who will be eligible for a flu shot and a Covid booster.
Millions of people under the age of 65 will not be offered any vaccine.
Only people over the age of 65, younger people in a risk group such as pregnant women, NHS staff, social care workers and residents of nursing homes for the elderly will be invited.
Anyone ages 12 to 64 who lives with someone who is immunocompromised, such as cancer and transplant patients, will also be eligible.
Health experts yesterday called the move “shortsighted” and “contemptuous”, warning that flu and covid cases could soar again before the vulnerable get their extra dose.
However, other leading experts insisted the move was sensible as the country embraces post-pandemic life.
Eligible Britons are expected to be offered both their Covid booster and flu shot at the same appointment, with a shot in each arm where possible, as has been done in previous years.
Ineligible individuals will not be able to privately purchase coronavirus vaccines, unlike the flu.
It comes as covid cases and hospitalizations are already rising in Britain, with a new variant taking off.
Eris, or EG.5.1, already accounts for one in seven new Covid cases.
However, experts have said that it shows no signs of being more dangerous than the other strains in circulation, including its ancestor Omicron.
Experts in Australia, where the flu season runs from April to September and generally predicts how it will play out in the UK, have warned of record cases.
Doctors have raised concerns about the impact on children, with around half of the cases in children under 15 years of age. Young people have also accounted for about eight out of 10 hospital admissions.
The country is forecast to have a flu season similar to that recorded in 2019, which was the largest on record with more than 300,000 infections recorded.
Rather than a more infectious flu strain, experts have blamed under-vaccination in children for leaving them more vulnerable to the virus.
The NHS has yet to confirm when and how eligible groups will be able to book their appointments for their covid and flu shots.
The British have been asked not to come forward until more information is announced.