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Health: Flu Vaccines

Volume 793: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether there is any shortage of flu vaccines; and if so, what steps they are taking to rectify this.

My Lords, there is no overall shortage of flu vaccines. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended that the newly available adjuvanted trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine, or aTIV, is the most effective vaccine for the over-65s. To enable the vaccine to be available this year, it has been necessary for the manufacturer to stagger deliveries between September and November. Everybody who wants to be vaccinated should be able to do so before December.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but how is it, given the statement from NHS England that last year was the worst for deaths for seven years at 15,000, that here we are with a new vaccine geared to those most at risk—I happen to be one and I declare an interest—yet I go into my GP, a brilliant practice in Potton, Greensands, and there are no vaccines available and no notice of exactly when those vaccines will come? Can my noble friend tell me and other patients whether those vaccines are actually going to be available in sufficient time for all patients at risk to be vaccinated before 1 December? Unless that is done, they will be useless to us in the older age group.

I take my noble friend’s point very seriously. It is worth stating that the reason for moving to this new vaccine is precisely because it is more effective. Unfortunately, the response rates for the vaccine that was used in the over-65s last year were not as high as hoped. Indeed, there were quite a number of admissions to intensive care units of that age group. That is the reason for moving to the vaccine, but because it is the first year it has been available, it has been necessary, because of global demand, to stagger the delivery, as I said. GPs and pharmacies were informed of this staggering of deliveries at the beginning of the year. I can tell my noble friend that 8.2 million doses have already been ordered for this age group, of which 4.9 million have already been delivered, against around 7.6 million used last year. So there is adequate supply, and it will be delivered to all GPs and pharmacies as necessary to meet the demand by the end of November, so that by the beginning of December anybody who wants that vaccination should be able to access it.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that by delaying the availability of a vaccine for the over-65s, the Department of Health is increasing the risk of that group of people contracting flu? Can he explain to the House why it has taken the decision not to have it available until early December?

I am very happy to tell the House: it was on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is precisely where we get expert advice on how to act. The reason for moving to this new vaccine is the one I set out. The reason that the delivery is staggered, but to be completed by the end of November, is because it is from December into January that we have the peak of influenza in this country. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer said:

“Based on many years of surveillance in the UK it is highly unusual for widespread community flu activity to become significant or substantial before the start of September”.

It is on that clinical advice that this decision has been taken.

My Lords, high-street pharmacies are offering flu jab appointments to the public, as are pharmacies in larger supermarkets. This morning I was able to book several dummy appointments online with several—just for research, noble Lords will understand. It would appear that all of those were successful, so those particular retail pharmacies have no problem providing vaccine for older people. Can the Minister tell the House whether the market for vaccines is an open market, or do GPs and the NHS get preferential treatment? We know that CCGs commission pharmacies for some of the work that they do. Is the flu vaccine included in that CCG commission? Would that tell us what proportion of the population would choose the retail route rather than the GP route?

First, let me just clarify that the quotation from my last answer should have ended,

“before the start of December”.

It would be terribly alarming if it was September: it was December and I am happy to write to noble Lords with those details.

As for how the vaccine is secured, it is done on the open market. GPs and pharmacies buy it directly from the manufacturer, which in this case is Seqirus. As I have said, we have checked with the manufacturer, which has confirmed that there is adequate supply available for this country. Seqirus has, indeed, made extra supply available in response to the demand we have heard discussed today.

Could my noble friend advise the House why the flu vaccination parliamentary day on 9 October was cancelled at the last minute?

I think the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, is actually that they ran out of jabs. I declare an interest as a member of a CCG. It is true that there has been some confusion about when people could get their flu jabs. How will the Minister ensure that a significant number of the most vulnerable people actually get their flu jabs? He said in his first Answer that the take-up was not as good as it should have been last year, so that seems very important. Secondly, how are we to ensure that NHS staff take up the flu jab as they should, too?

First, take-up was actually at its highest level ever last year. The issue was the effectiveness of the vaccine, which is why the committee’s recommendation was to move to this new vaccine. In terms of confusion about who can get the flu jab, it is clear that we have the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in Europe. Anybody who has gone to a GP’s surgery or pharmacy and has not been able to access it up to now will—or should—have been told when they can come back and when new supplies will be available. As I said, it is about making sure that can happen before the end of November. We had a fantastic take-up among NHS staff this year; the jab is freely available to NHS staff, social care staff and, for the first time this year, hospice staff.

My Lords, the reason why the vaccine last year was not as effective was that in the majority of older people, the immune response was poor. The enhanced vaccination, although effective for only three strains of viruses—as opposed to four, before it was enhanced—is better to wait for because it will be more effective in older people. It is the older people that the flu kills so because there is a shortage of supply, Scotland took the view that it will be available only to the over-75s. Does the Minister agree that it is worth waiting for?

I thank the noble Lord for that point but it is important to point out that the over-65s will not have long to wait and that anybody who wants to have it will be able to do so by the end of November, in time for the flu season.