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Influenza Vaccine

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is the impact of the sale of influenza vaccinations in supermarket pharmacies on the availability of such vaccinations to vulnerable groups.

My Lords, the distribution of influenza vaccine started in September. By the end of November, 13 million doses will have been delivered to GPs. This represents nearly 90 per cent of the total available vaccine. A further 2 million doses will be delivered by the end of December, making more than 1 million more doses available than were used last year. The UK Vaccine Industry Group has informed us that 97 per cent of influenza vaccine is provided for the NHS with a maximum of 3 per cent going to private sales, a figure that has remained stable over recent years.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that illuminating Answer. But given that supermarket pharmacies, certainly in Cheshire, are selling flu jabs to the general public for £15, can he assure us that GPs will receive these important vaccines? I declare an interest as my local GP has not yet received them. Can the Minister again state that the Government’s priority is that those in vulnerable groups should be treated first?

My Lords, of course I can. The Government have already exceeded the 75 per cent vaccination of high-risk groups which the World Health Organisation recommended for 2010—they did it last year, and we are continuing along that path. It is for GPs to order their vaccines from the supplier; they do not do it through the Department of Health. As I said, a maximum of 3 per cent is available for private sales, which is meant to ensure that high-risk groups for vaccines go to their GPs for vaccination.

My Lords, why, every year at this time, do we seem to have a Question or two or three on this subject? Why does there seem to be, for GPs in their practices, always a shortage at this time of year? This is not the first time that we have heard that there has been private supply available when some NHS practices have not had it. Perhaps the Minister can explain why we cannot get vaccines to GPs faster.

My Lords, there was a problem in the manufacture of vaccines this year where the reagents used did not produce vaccine fast enough. That was a manufacturing problem and nothing to do with the Government or with NHS management. It was an international problem affecting not just this country but all countries. That is the explanation for the slow delivery this year. I think that what has happened is that a rather excitable story appeared in the Daily Express, which was fully briefed on this, about private sales of flu vaccine. They are running at the same level this year as they have in previous years.

My Lords, the present influenza vaccine now being distributed has no possibility of protecting against a potential bird flu epidemic. While the prospect of a pandemic appears to have receded, can the Minister tell us what progress has been made in producing a vaccine against the H5N1 influenza virus strain?

My Lords, the research industry continues to work in this area. In order to provide an effective vaccine against a pandemic flu, you have to know what the strain is in the first place. However, the Government have put in place a strong pandemic flu plan, including stockpiling antivirals should that unfortunate event actually occur.

My Lords, given the coverage we have seen in the media this morning of supermarkets around the country providing vaccine, and since my noble friend has said that the vaccine is fully available in those supermarkets, why do not the doctors buy the jabs from the supermarkets?

My Lords, let me correct my noble friend. I did not say that the vaccine is available in all supermarkets. I said that 3 per cent of the total supply for this winter might be available in supermarkets and other private pharmacies for purchase. It is still a free country and if people wish to spend their money on that 3 per cent of the vaccine, provided they are not in the high-risk groups, that is down to them.

My Lords, notwithstanding the fact that what price is paid clearly is a matter between GPs and the manufacturers, what is the answer to my noble friend’s question?