The NHS is preparing to start delivering more than 1m Covid and flu jabs a day across the UK in a drive to save lives and stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed this winter.
NHS bosses expect the record 844,285 vaccines delivered on 20 March to be exceeded within days as a result of GPs and other vaccinators administering Covid booster jabs to adults, jabs for children aged 12 to 15, and the rollout of winter flu shots.
GP leaders privately agree that the need to deliver 33m third Covid jabs and inoculate 3 million younger secondary schoolchildren, while also protecting 36 million people against flu as soon as possible, means vaccination teams will be administering more than 1m doses on at least some days.
That prospect came closer on Wednesday evening when NHS England issued new guidance making clear that third Covid jabs should be “co-administered with flu vaccine wherever possible”. That increased the likelihood of millions of people either aged over 50 or deemed medically vulnerable due to their underlying health having a flu jab in one arm at the same time as they get their Covid booster in the other.
The NHS across the UK is gearing up to once again start administering vaccines to very large numbers of people from next Monday amid growing fears in the service and medical community that a combination of flu and resurgent Covid this winter could prove very hard to cope with.
Some hospitals began giving health and social care workers their third dose on Thursday, ahead of Monday’s official start of the rollout in England. Personnel working in either setting are a priority group for the top-up jabs.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, hailed the news as “brilliant”. Initially all third doses for the 33 million people eligible will involve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, though some may in time get a half-dose of the Moderna vaccine as an alternative.
Catherine Cargill, a maternity support worker at Croydon university hospital in south London, said: “I’ve just had my booster vaccine, my Pfizer vaccine, and I have had it ahead of the winter season to make sure I am protected, to make sure I can carry on working, carry on spending time with my family and carry on with my studies.”
Boris Johnson has also urged the 6 million Britons who remain unvaccinated to finally get jabbed, after data from the Office for National Statistics showed that just under 99% of all those who died because of Covid in England between January and June this year had not been vaccinated.
A Guardian analysis shows that 1.22 million people aged 50 and over in England alone will become eligible for their third jab by Monday, having been fully vaccinated at least six months previously, and that 10.6 million will have become eligible by 1 November. Between now and that date, the number of people to whom the NHS will have at least offered a jab – either a first, second or third dose or a jab for 12- to 15-year-olds – will have reached 24.7 million.
However, GP leaders have warned that people seeking their Covid booster may have to wait longer than the six months after their second shot recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) because of GP shortages and the fact that they are already so busy.
Some GPs fear there may be too few vaccinators available to cope with demand in the coming weeks. Medical students, who undertook many of the 92.7m jabs done so far, are going back to full-time study at university and the abolition of the furlough scheme at the end of this month will also reduce the number of qualified volunteers.
A well-placed NHS source said: “The peak number of vaccines of both sorts per day delivered this time round will be over 1m, on at least some days. Whereas vaccination teams were only doing Covid jabs in the spring, from next week they’ll be doing them alongside 36m flu jabs.”
Referring to the highest-ever total of 844,285 first and second Covid doses given out on 20 March, Ruth Rankine, the director of primary care at the NHS Confederation, which represents groupings of GP surgeries, said: “With Covid booster shots, jabs for 12- to 15-year-olds, and the biggest ever flu campaign, daily vaccines could well exceed records hit previously.
“Health leaders are worried about a difficult winter that lies ahead for the NHS. But they will rise to the challenge and do everything they can for their patients, as they have done throughout the pandemic.”
More high street pharmacies are likely to start offering Covid jabs either as boosters or to 12- to 15-year-olds this autumn in an effort to reduce the workload facing GPs, the Guardian understands.
Family doctors plan to play only a very limited role in jabbing children, who will mainly receive their dose at school from the school vaccination service that already delivers jabs there such as those to combat the cancer-causing human papillomavirus and diptheria, tetanus and polio.
Dr Richard Vautrey, the chair of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee, wrote to all GP surgeries earlier this week telling them to avoid vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds in their area “unless explicitly agreed with the [local NHS] commissioner”.
With more than 8,000 people in hospital ill with Covid, and some hospitals already running short of beds as a result, NHS sources underlined the urgency of getting as many Covid and flu jabs delivered as soon as possible.
However, Prof Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, cautioned that “GPs are already under [such] enormous pressure” that the ramping-up may take time.
“We appreciate the need for a speedy rollout of the booster programme. But GPs themselves have only just had this news confirmed and need time to accommodate the arrangements around the needs of existing patients. We ask the public to bear with us and wait until they are called – for all vaccines,” he said.
The six-month gap between second and third Covid vaccines mandated by the JCVI means the booster programme will run throughout the autumn and winter, given that younger adults only got their second jabs recently.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said: “Vaccines provide vital protection, particularly ahead of the winter period, and so I would urge you to take up the offer of flu and Covid booster jabs, when you are invited by the NHS.”