The government has reversed its decision to delay England’s covid and influenza vaccination campaigns for adults this year, citing the identification of a new covid variant as the reason.
Earlier this month,1 officials said the expected start date for this year’s autumn flu and covid vaccine programmes for adults would be delayed until early October in order to “maximise and extend protection during the winter.”
But following the emergence of variant BA.2.86,2 the government has asked the NHS to bring forward the programmes as a precautionary measure, with NHS England announcing additional funding for general practices and other providers to support the accelerated rollout.
From 11 September, those most at risk, including care home residents and people who are immunosuppressed, will be offered their covid vaccine first, followed by other groups including carers, pregnant women, health and social care staff, and adults over 65.
Wherever possible, flu and covid-19 vaccinations should be offered at the same time for operational expediency and in line with public health recommendations, officials said.
Steve Russell, NHS England’s chief delivery officer and national director for vaccinations, said, “While we know that flu and covid usually hit hardest in December and January, the new covid variant presents a greater risk now, which is why we will be ensuring as many people as possible are vaccinated against covid sooner. To support the fast tracked delivery, vaccine providers will be given additional payments for delivering covid vaccines before the end of October.”
Extra payments for GPs
GPs and other vaccine providers will receive an additional payment of £10 (in addition to the item of service (IoS) fee) for each covid-19 vaccination administered to care home residents between 11 September and 22 October 2023 inclusive, and a separate one-off additional payment of £200 for each care home completed by the end of 22 October.
For other eligible groups, vaccine providers will receive an additional £5 acceleration payment (in addition to the IoS fee) for each covid-19 vaccination administered to eligible people between 11 September and 31 October 2023.
Samira Anane, deputy chair of GPC England at the BMA, said, “We welcome news that NHS England has, following BMA lobbying, decided to increase financial support for practices to deliver covid-19 vaccines, helping to safeguard vulnerable patients this winter.
“Thankfully, many GP practices had already prepared to deliver the flu vaccination programme in September despite suggestions that NHS England would delay it, so practices are already on track to deliver this before the end of October and make sure those who are eligible get the protection they need.”
But Anane urged NHS England to extend the financial support beyond the end of October “to ensure that any practices still needing to provide boosters after this time, can.”
Precaution against BA.2.86
The UK Health Security Agency’s latest risk assessment says that BA.2.86 has a high number of mutations and has appeared in several countries in people without travel history.
It does not currently classify BA.2.86 as a variant of concern, but has advised that speeding up the autumn vaccine programme will deliver greater protection, supporting those at greatest risk of severe illness and reducing the potential impact on the NHS.
Jenny Harries, the agency’s chief executive, said, “This precautionary measure to bring forward the autumn programme will ensure these people have protection against any potential wave this winter.
“There is limited information available at present on BA.2.86 so the potential impact of this variant is difficult to estimate. As with all emergent and circulating covid-19 variants—both in the UK and internationally—we will continue to monitor BA.2.86 and to advise government and the public as we learn more.”
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