Lack of walk-in vaccine centres puts England’s booster jab target at risk

Thousands drive miles as appointment-only systems jeopardise aim of offering third vaccination to all adults by end of month

Large swathes of the country, including several major cities, have no vaccination walk-in centres, it has emerged, sparking fears the government will miss its target of offering all adults a booster jab by the end of this month.

As the tide of Omicron cases surges, thousands seeking a third vaccination without having to wait days or weeks for an appointment are driving miles to neighbouring counties. People without transport and those for whom a walk-in centre is the only option – because they do not have a GP or an NHS number – have no access to Covid jabs.

Several cities, including Norwich, Peterborough and York, have no walk-in centres advertised on NHS websites. And there are no walk-in boosters available in entire counties, including Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, although some offer third doses for people with weakened immune systems.

Anna Miller of Doctors of the World, which runs a clinic in London to provide medical care to excluded populations, told the Observer: “If you’re a migrant, and you weren’t issued with an NHS number at birth, the only way you get one is by registering with a GP for the first time. If they can’t register with a GP, which is very common if you’re an undocumented migrant, or even an asylum seeker, [they are] not going to be called forward for a vaccine by their GP, but they also can’t log on to the NHS system and book an appointment.”

She added that while some local authorities run vaccination outreach programmes for asylum seekers, these remain patchy and don’t always reach people not living in designated asylum seeker housing.

“This represents a complete failure to think about populations who aren’t registered with a GP – so that’s migrants but it’s also homeless people, Gypsy and Traveller communities. It’s not good for any of them.”

While most boosters are being offered by invitation or booking via the NHS website, walk-in centres are supposed to play a major part in the rollout.

Peterborough council’s website says it has no walk-in booster sites “to ensure that as many eligible people as possible can access boosters in a planned and managed way”. According to the NHS national website, the nearest walk-in to the city is 17 miles away.

In Buckinghamshire, a spokesperson for the NHS clinical commissioning group (CCG) said: “To help ensure as many people can get their booster dose as soon as possible, vaccination centres in Buckinghamshire are currently asking people to book appointments for their jabs. This allows the centres to operate more efficiently as work continues to increase vaccination capacity across the county.”

Last week there were no walk-in booster sites in the whole of Hampshire, with the nearest sites to Southampton and Portsmouth located on the Isle of Wight. However, walk-in sites have opened in Hampshire from this weekend.

Last week concerns were raised about the lack of walk-in booster sites in Hull, which has a population of 260,000 and relatively low vaccination rates. The council’s deputy leader, Hester Bridges, criticised the government for announcing the new booster target “without thinking about what needs to happen for the programme to significantly expand and offer flexibility like walk-ins”.

However, on Friday afternoon two new walk-in sites in Hull were announced, each open on one day this week. Hull CCG said booking remained the best option to get the booster.

An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS now has nearly 3,000 sites available, including many in community pharmacies, and the vast majority of people live less than 10 miles from one, so it’s easier than ever to get protected. Undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, and others with no GP registration, are able to get a temporary registration with a GP practice, where they can get their jab direct or use the temporary registration to make an appointment through the national booking service.”

However, a report this summer by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that nearly two-thirds of GP practices would not register undocumented migrants as patients.

Miller, of Doctors of the World, said: “We support people to register with a GP and access medical services every day, and see GP practices routinely refusing to register people without official immigration status. This leaves people without an NHS number unable to book a vaccine appointment and forced to rely on walk-in vaccine centres.”

  • This article was updated on 19 December 2021 to reflect that walk-in centres have now opened in Hampshire.


Chaminda Jayanetti

The GuardianTramp

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