GP surgeries are waiting up to a month for supplies of this winter’s flu vaccine amid unprecedented numbers of patients seeking jabs ahead of the second wave of Covid-19, family doctors have said.
The Royal College of GPs (RCPG) has written to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, seeking assurances that they will have enough doses of the vaccine to cope with demand. The struggle to get jabs has prompted fears that vulnerable groups, including elderly people and those with underlying conditions, will go unprotected.
“We have heard anecdotally that some surgeries are waiting up to a month for replenished supplies of vaccine, which raises concerns that there are significant distribution problems,” Prof Martin Marshall, the RCGP’s chair and a family doctor in London, said in the letter.
One GP in Nottingham said there had been “a huge uptake compared to previous years, well over what we anticipated” at their surgery among groups eligible for the free jab, “so supplies ran out quickly”.
“The next delivery is several weeks away and there are patients in at-risk groups who are having to wait. We have a patient aged 70 with heart disease who wants the vaccine but we currently have none to give her until the next delivery in mid to late October,” the GP said.
Shortages mean that people aged 50 to 64, who are being offered a jab for the first time on the NHS, may have to wait until those with a greater medical need have been immunised first.
“While we’re most concerned about the at-risk groups such as the elderly, people with long-term conditions and pregnant women, it’s also frustrating that people in the 50-64 age group are coming forward in good faith, yet face being turned away,” Marshall said.
Those people are being asked to show patience even if they missed out at their first attempt to get the vaccine. “This is not about GPs rationing the vaccination, but we must prioritise those in most need and for whom influenza poses the biggest threat.”
High street pharmacies such as Boots, Lloyds Pharmacy and Well Pharmacy recently had to stop taking bookings while they awaited fresh supplies.
In his letter, Marshall appears to disbelieve Hancock’s insistence that the only problems are around getting the vaccine to where it is needed, rather than there being shortages. In a plea for ministers to be “as transparent as possible about shortages”, Marshall adds: “It will not be helpful for practices or acceptable to patients if current claims that there are no supply problems are exposed as overly optimistic in coming months.”
Dr Helen Salisbury, a GP in Oxford and columnist with the BMJ, said: “Our first problem is the number of people in traditionally eligible groups wanting the vaccine has increased as people are more aware of the dangers of viral illnesses. Secondly, Boris Johnson promised that eligibility would be extended to everyone over 50, without as far as I can tell working out whether the vaccine manufacturers could increase supply.
“We haven’t run out yet, but I fear we probably will even before November when the over-50s have been told they can have what’s left.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There is no national shortage of the flu vaccine, with enough doses for 30 million people to be vaccinated in England. The vaccine is already being delivered for those in at-risk groups, including the over-65s and this will continue throughout the winter months, so there is still time for those eligible people to get their vaccinations.”