To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the take-up of influenza vaccination among those who work in the health and care services.
My Lords, this winter NHS employers ran a staff communications campaign to increase awareness and uptake of the flu vaccine in front-line healthcare workers. The department wrote to NHS trusts, medical royal colleges, professional bodies and the social care sector for their support in increasing uptake in this group. Good progress has been made. Uptake in healthcare workers to the end of November was 40 per cent, more than double what it was by this point last year.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the improvement, but does he agree that there is still a significant way to go? Indeed, Professor Openshaw, the director of the Centre for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London, said that in his view healthcare staff should be vaccinated and wear a badge saying, “I’ve been vaccinated. Ask me why”. I am not suggesting a compulsory approach, but more front-line education of staff would be a step forward, as would making vaccination available to health and care workers at their place of work. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those points.
I agree that there is some way to go. It is encouraging that we have made significant progress this year. Of course, the season is not yet at an end, and we hope that more healthcare workers will still be vaccinated. Uptake rates in healthcare workers have historically been low, as the noble Lord will be aware. A number of reasons have been suggested for that, but there is no doubt about the importance of this issue. Part of the reason is the need to ensure that healthcare workers do not transmit flu to those they are looking after. Also, it is in the interest of employers to ensure that absenteeism for sickness reasons is kept to a minimum.
My Lords, will the Minister clarify whether the same measures will be taken whenever public or NHS money is spent, which is not only in the public sector but in the private voluntary and mutual sectors?
My Lords, in general it is incumbent on employers, whether in the public or the independent sector, to ensure that their staff are protected appropriately. If my noble friend’s question alludes to the fact that independent providers may be offering services to the NHS, then I agree that there is a duty there, and we will see, as we already see, that that provision is taken account of in the contracts that commissioners take out with independent providers.
With reference to the contracts and the contracting guidance, is the department considering that immunisation against infection, such as influenza, should be considered as an infection control measure in areas where patients are immunocompromised, such as those who are having chemotherapy or who are on other immunosuppressant drugs? They are at particular risk of high mortality as well as morbidity should they pick up an infection.
The noble Baroness makes a very valid point. Those types of patient are in the most vulnerable category—the immunocompromised—and it is, I understand, a feature of the normal contract to ensure that those patients are protected to the maximum extent.
My Lords, does my noble friend recall a recent report from experts that stated that the present flu vaccine is very much less than universally good for the job that it is trying to do and that further experts reported that work was being done on a more effective vaccine that needs to be given only once a lifetime and that would do the job properly? Is there any further news about that possible development?
My Lords, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation issued a statement in November last year saying that there is good evidence that some new vaccines are demonstrably more effective in children in particular than the non-adjuvanted inactivated vaccines that are currently available. The JCVI concluded that,
“the live attenuated intranasal vaccine and adjuvanted inactivated intramuscular vaccine once available should be the vaccines of choice for use in children according to their market authorisations”.
However, it also said that a further review of data would be needed on the safety of these vaccines in certain groups, including asthmatics and those who are immunocompromised. There is further work to do in this area.