Record 35m people will be offered free flu jab to ease pressure on NHS

Vaccine drive comes amid warnings of a nightmare winter as immunity falls due to Covid restrictions

The largest flu vaccination programme in UK history is to be rolled out this year, ministers have said, with jabs offered to all school pupils aged under 17.

Last year free flu vaccines were expanded to all adults over 50 and children in the first year of secondary school but this year the plans are even bigger, with secondary school pupils up to Year 11 included in the programme.

From 31 August, vaccines will also be offered to all children aged two and three , primary school pupils, people with certain health conditions, unpaid carers, pregnant women, close contacts of immunocompromised individuals, and frontline health and adult social care staff.

In total, officials say they expect the jab or nasal spray vaccine to be offered free to more than 35 million people. A record 19 million seasonal flu jabs were administered in winter 2020

The announcement comes just days after a report commissioned by the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, suggested the health service could face a nightmare scenario this winter, in part because people’s immunity to respiratory infections such as flu was likely to have fallen as Covid restrictions reduced their spread.

The Royal College of General Practitioners has said cases of flu in the community last season were about 95% lower than normal.

“The flu vaccine is safe, effective and protects millions of people each year from what can be a devastating illness,” said Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England.

“Last winter, flu activity was extremely low, but this is no reason for complacency as it means fewer people have built up a defence against the virus. Combined with the likelihood that Covid-19 will still be circulating, this makes the coming flu season highly unpredictable.”

The UK’s health and social care secretary, Sajid Javid, said the Covid vaccination programme showed the positive impact vaccination can make.

“With the nation getting closer to normal life, we must learn to live with Covid-19 alongside other viruses and we’re offering the free flu jab to millions more people to help keep them safe this winter,” he said.

Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick welcomed the announcement, which he said reflected concerns about how the inevitable winter surge of respiratory virus infections will be managed.

“Vaccinating elderly people and most vulnerable with a flu jab at the same time as they receive a Covid booster jab is a possibility. This is currently being evaluated in a clinical trial,” he said. “It will be important to have an efficient testing regime in place that is able to discriminate between different respiratory virus infections to guide clinical management.”

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Nicola Davis Science correspondent

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