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Flu Vaccination and Blood Test Cancellations

Volume 814: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the level of cancellations of influenza vaccinations and routine blood tests.

My Lords, I regret to report that there was a shortfall in the supply of blood tubes of around 13% in the last two weeks of August, which led to some disruption. That has been mitigated through use of government stockpiles, importing tubes and changes in practice. Supply has now returned to normal. It is not true that there is a flu vaccine shortage; the delivery from one supplier was delayed by one or two weeks, but this should have no impact on the flu vaccination programme overall. I am pleased to say that we are in regular contact with doctors, and no issues of cancelled appointments have been raised.

What the Minister just said about blood tests is good news for those who have regular serious blood tests. But on the subject of flu jabs, does he recall telling me earlier this year that the flu jabs were made in the UK? They are not imported. The lorry drivers problem is a UK issue, so this is a home-grown issue. The websites this morning are saying that, up and down the country, GP after GP has been thrown into chaos because they are having to cancel appointments that were made weeks ago. I have personal experience of this, because even in Ludlow we are having appointments cancelled. The idea that this is not a problem is not the case. Why has this been allowed to happen? Everything involved is under our control in the UK.

My Lords, it is not my understanding that appointments have been cancelled. If the noble Lord has any anecdotes, reports or evidence of that, I would be very grateful if he could send me that material. Seqirus, the company concerned, brings its vaccines in from overseas.

I remind the House of my interest, in working with the Dispensing Doctors’ Association. If my noble friend reads the BMA website for 4 September, he will see that it reports numerous cancellations of appointments for meticulously planned routine flu vaccinations. Obviously, that has caused great disruption. Will he undertake to treat this matter with the utmost urgency, to ensure that GP practices are not left to face the music, and that the Government will do their utmost to roll out the vaccine programme?

As my noble friend knows extremely well because of her close connections with the industry, GPs and pharmacies are responsible for purchasing their own flu vaccines through the seasonal flu vaccination programme, directly from manufacturers or wholesalers. Deliveries are phased and typically take place over a long period from September to November. As I said earlier, the disruption we have had in the supply was from one supplier for one or two weeks. It has not had a meaningful impact on the supply of flu vaccines to this country.

The Minister and the Government need to catch up with what is going on on the ground. I think almost everyone in your Lordships’ House knows someone who has had their flu vaccine appointment cancelled. There are two such noble Lords over there. I know three people in the House whose flu vaccinations have been cancelled. Perhaps he needs to go back to have another look at this.

The BMA has called for a COBRA meeting on the shortages of test tubes and transport. The Minister might think it is scaremongering, but it actually has a right to be alarmed. First, in these circumstances, if there are further delays and shortages, will he and the Government have a system of prioritisation? Secondly, how will the NHS encourage better take-up of flu vaccination among NHS staff?

My Lords, I hear loud and clearly the very obvious feedback from noble Lords about cancelled appointments. It is not the same as the guidance that I have been given, but I will look into it when I get back to the department and will be happy to write to the noble Baroness with an update on them. With regard to test tubes, I reassure her that guidance was issued to the NHS and GPs recommending actions for medical directors, nursing directors, GPs and pathology laboratories. It required refinements that had an impact, but those with an acute need for blood were accommodated and a COBRA meeting was not needed.

That takes me back to campaigning 20 years ago. It is nice to see the noble Lord.

At the end of August I received a text from NHS-NoReply:

“Due to a global shortage of blood bottles, we are unable to provide routine blood tests until further notice”.

If, as the Minister says, this shortage has been overcome in the intervening weeks, will he ensure that GP surgeries send out text messages on a similar line saying, “This is no longer a problem. Will people therefore come for their routine blood tests?”

My Lords, I had a similar text. I point out that it was about “routine” use. We were able to accommodate acute use through the whole period. However, the noble Baroness makes a good point, so I will look into it and see whether something can be done along those lines.

My Lords, the HGV driver shortage has clearly been exacerbated by Brexit. Will the Minister tell the House what he intends to do about that?

I do not quite know how to answer that question. When it comes to test tubes for blood collection and the flu vaccine, I am not sure that there is a Brexit angle and we have it covered.

My Lords, I cannot be the only Member of your Lordships’ House who is slightly confused by the Minister’s answers in relation to disputes of fact about whether cancellations are even happening, and then perhaps the passing of the buck to GP surgeries. When he writes to my noble friend Lady Thornton, will he place his answer in the Library and not just address the vital issue of fact—and trust—as we head into a very difficult winter, but be clear about the priorities between routine testing and vaccination and the more acute category that he describes?

I would be absolutely delighted to put the letter into the Library as requested by the noble Baroness, but please do not think for a moment that I am in any way seeking to pass responsibility. I am pointing out the very clear fact that GPs are responsible for implementing the flu vaccination programme. It is something that they do brilliantly. No other country has a flu vaccination programme with the impact that ours has. GPs are taking on more responsibilities this year with secondary school children being vaccinated. The rate I am expecting for this year will be higher than we have ever seen before.

My Lords, any delay in blood tests or flu vaccination must have some impact on patient safety. What monitoring are the Government doing to try to measure the impact? Will the Minister ask the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch to conduct a review?

My Lords, my understanding is that patient safety has not been at stake, but the noble Lord makes an extremely good point. I am not sure it is my role to instruct HSIB on this, but I will look into whether investigation is necessary. I reassure him that these shortages have not had a profound impact. We have marshalled the use of the tubes extremely carefully and have pushed back some routine blood-taking. That will have a small impact but we have put in place provision for a catch-up.

After my unfortunate trans moment, I shall now ask my question in all seriousness. Does the Minister recognise that this winter it is particularly important that we get the maximum number of flu vaccinations in this round? It is important every winter, but this winter somebody contracting flu and then Covid is in serious danger.

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that we have strained every sinew to deliver the most impactful flu vaccination programme in the history of the country. We have expanded the range of the flu vaccination and the number of vaccinations available. The NHS depends on us keeping people out of beds. That is why we are highly focused on this.

Will the Minister answer the question asked by my noble friend Lady Thornton about the BMA’s feeling sufficiently concerned that it suggested a meeting of COBRA? COBRA could have discussions with the Armed Forces and perhaps we could use some of their drivers. There are answers to some of these problems.

Does the Minister not understand the frustration across the Chamber? Every one of us knows that there are problems with routine blood tests and cancellations of flu vaccinations. Everyone would expect the Minister to explain what he is going to do about it—so what is he going to do about it?

My Lords, I hear the frustration in the House, particularly on flu vaccinations. Quite clearly the personal experience of those in this Chamber is different from what is being reported to me. I have undertaken to look into it more closely, to write to the noble Baroness and to put that letter into the Library. I think that is an entirely fair and reasonable response and, if I may say so, demonstrates the effectiveness of this Chamber at holding Ministers to account.