GP surgeries are being forced to cancel appointments for the winter flu jab after the NHS’s biggest provider warned that it could not deliver supplies for up to two weeks due to “unforeseen road freight challenges”.
Practices in England have begun contacting patients to postpone their immunisation without being able to rebook them at a later date. The problem emerged on Friday when vaccine maker Seqirus wrote to surgeries alerting them to the possibility of having to rearrange booked appointments.
“We would like to inform you that due to unforeseen road freight challenges, there will be a delay to your scheduled delivery by one to two weeks,” the firm said.
“We realise that this unfortunate change could require you to reschedule planned influenza vaccination clinics and would like to reassure you that we are working hard to allow you to plan with certainty.”
It added: “Please do not book any clinics until you have received [a] delivery note from us [a week before planned delivery].”
The letter did not explain whether the delays were related to the continuing shortage of lorry drivers that has led to supermarkets running out of certain goods and fast food outlets having to close as they are unable to serve signature dishes.
It is unclear how much disruption the firm’s inability to deliver vaccines to GP surgeries will have on the NHS’s flu vaccination campaign, which is due to be the largest yet, with more groups than ever eligible for a free jab.
Ministers and NHS bosses want as many people as possible to have their jab, to help protect the NHS at a time when Covid is likely to again be resurgent.
On Friday, the Heaton Mersey medical practice GP surgery in Stockport began cancelling appointments for patients to come in for their flu jab.
Soon after receiving the information from Seqirus, it sent a message to affected patients saying: “Flu vaccine appointment cancelled! We have just been informed that all flu deliveries across the UK will be delayed, with no firm date for when we can expect delivery.
“We therefore have to cancel your appointment until we receive confirmation of a new delivery date.”
It is unclear if Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland are affected as well as England.
The British Medical Association warned that the delay in delivery would have a major impact. It comes on top of a severe shortage of blood sample bottles, which last week led NHS England to order GPs and hospitals to cut back dramatically the number of blood tests they carry out, which has forced doctors to ration which patients have their blood taken.
“This issue is likely to affect a significant proportion of practices and have a serious impact on both practice workloads and, most importantly, patients”, said Dr Richard Vautrey, the chair of the BMA’s GPs committee.
“Many practices will have spent the last few days and weeks meticulously planning for their flu vaccination programme, inviting and booking patients in for their jabs, only now to have to contact them all again to cancel or reschedule appointments.”
The company, which has its headquarters in Berkshire, describes itself as “the largest provider of seasonal influenza vaccines to the UK and a major global supplier”. It recently opened a new flu vaccine manufacturing plant in Liverpool to supply 30m doses to the UK.
The cancellations would cause “unneeded anxiety for patients who will be keen to be protected ahead of winter”, Vautrey added.
Dr Gary Howsam, vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “This is news we really didn’t want to hear. With over 36 million people eligible for the flu vaccine on the NHS this year, GPs need the supply chain to run like clockwork.
“It is essential that as many people as possible in at-risk groups get their vaccination as early into the flu season as possible. A delay of even a couple of weeks is going to have a big impact on practices and their patients.”
Ministers have yet to decide if this year’s flu jab rollout will also be used to administer booster Covid vaccines to vulnerable groups. Experts have warned that there could be as much as 50% more flu around this winter than usual.
A spokesperson for Seqirus said: “We could not anticipate certain challenges relating to transportation. These have then led to a one- to two-week delay of vaccines for our customers. We are working hard to resolve this.”