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Immunisation: Winter 2023-24

Volume 827: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they expect the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) will announce the national immunisation programme for respiratory viruses for the winter season 2023/2024.

My Lords, there are many viruses that cause mild and severe respiratory tract infections, with vaccination programmes against influenza and Covid-19 and a target immunisation offer against respiratory syncytial virus for children at high risk in England. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recently published advice on influenza and Covid-19 for 2023-24, and is reviewing new products for potentially improving and expanding the RSV immunisation offer. The Government will announce those in due course.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but obviously I am looking for a little more on a time and a date for that vaccination programme for next winter, which could see the introduction of several new immunisations for RSV. Indeed, I understand that one vaccine received its licence from the MHRA last November. What are the Government doing to ensure that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is able to rapidly access these new technologies in time for the next winter season, and thus help to mitigate the problems faced by the National Health Service?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and pay tribute to the work that she does on behalf of us all as the allergy champion in Parliament. In line with the JCVI recommendation, the NHS currently offers a targeted monoclonal antibody programme to a small number of infants at high risk of severe complications from RSV infection. However, there are potential changes to this programme: a new monoclonal antibody which provides longer-term protection than the one currently used has been developed, and the JCVI is reviewing this in time for the 2023-24 season. The new monoclonal antidotes and vaccines are being reviewed by the JCVI for potential expansion of the current programme, including a universal offer. The JCVI is expected to conclude advice on this later in 2023. I assure the noble Baroness that I have asked for a specific date, and once I receive one I will certainly notify her.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say why the Government are advocating the vaccination of healthy, not-at-risk children for Covid-19?

I thank my noble friend for that question. The Government are guided by the independent JCVI on vaccinations and immunisations. The intention of the vaccination offer to children is to increase the immunity of vaccinated individuals against severe Covid-19 in advance of a potential future wave. When formulating advice in relation to childhood immunisations, the JCVI has consistently maintained that the focus should be on the potential benefits and harms of vaccination to children and young people themselves; prevention of severe Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths in children and young people is the primary aim.

My Lords, will the Minister say a little more about routine vaccination programmes? Although, as he says, in the UK childhood vaccination levels are quite high, they have been going down. Last year, 2021, none of the targets reached the WHO target of 95% for herd immunity. This trend of reducing numbers of children coming forward for routine programmes has gone on since 2012. What are the Government doing to reverse that trend, particularly in the light of the fact that it contributes to health inequalities?

I thank the noble Baroness for that excellent question. The Government are committed to child health, and, after clean water, vaccination is the most effective public health intervention for saving lives and promoting good health. The Government work with the NHS and the UK Health Security Agency to support accurate and up-to-date information on the benefits of vaccines to be available to parents, carers and patients. The NHS has recently concluded a call and recall campaign for parents or carers of anyone aged one to six who has missed their measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, or for anyone who missed it for any reason when invited to their GP, to catch up on their vaccination. GPs offer opportunistic vaccinations for anyone who visits the GP for any reason. There is a lot more we can do, such as using social media to appeal to younger people, but the Government are doing all we can.

My Lords, vaccination is the most effective way of preventing a whole host of diseases, yet the pharmaceutical industry finds it very difficult to invest in this area because it is so costly and full of risks. What encouragement are the Government giving to help the pharmaceutical industry to produce vaccines?

The UK has an outstanding record of producing vaccines in this country. We are a world leader, and the Government work closely with that sector to make sure we are a global leader in such things.

My Lords, there are some half a million people whose immune systems do not respond to vaccines because of genetic disorders, blood cancers or immunosuppressive medications. The Government’s living with Covid strategy reassured vulnerable people that there would be world-leading access to therapeutics, but the current offerings are quite limited and hard to access, which leaves many vulnerable people continuing to need to shelter. What are the Government doing to develop the necessary treatments to protect this vulnerable group from serious disease if they become infected?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. The JCVI often gives interim advice on that specific subject. I do not have a specific answer, but I can certainly get back to her on that very good question, which raises an important point.

My Lords, the potential for new immunisation for RSV being introduced later this year for both babies and older people in time for the next winter season is very welcome. However, the seasonal and contagious nature of RSV raises growing concerns that the UK faces a future with co-circulating RSV, Covid-19, Strep A and other respiratory viruses, and this at a time when healthcare capacity is already overstretched. What is the Government’s latest assessment of the impact of these co-circulating viruses on primary and secondary care and workforce capacity?

RSV has been a challenge for the science community for decades. Up until very recently, we have had only one, very expensive preventive measure. The noble Baroness talks about the workforce. It is very important that we have the talented NHS staff to deal with these issues. We have made significant scientific advances recently, and I will report back to the noble Baroness when I have some data on that.

My Lords, following the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, can my noble friend tell me what the department is doing on the rollout of convalescent plasma treatments for immunosuppressed patients, given that the monoclonal antibody Evusheld has now been rejected by both the US and NICE? If he cannot respond today, might he be willing to meet us both to discuss trials that might be ongoing for convalescent plasma with fractionated blood?

My Lords, will the Minister tell us by what point a decision has to be made on the nature of the protection against whatever Covid variation might apply next winter so that sufficient time and stocks can be available to provide for all those who need it?

Everyone aged over 50 and at-risk groups were offered a Covid-19 booster and flu jab to increase protection against viruses this winter. We intend to improve on that for the forthcoming winter, in 2023-24.

My Lords, the Government’s regular flu and Covid-19 surveillance reports tell us that vaccination rates continue to vary widely between different demographic groups. Will the Minister share with the House the Government’s latest thinking on how they are going to improve vaccination take-up in those harder-to-reach groups so that everyone can benefit from that protection?

The noble Lord has mentioned digital connectivity several times in this place, and that is a very important part of how we can appeal to young people, along with working with education, schools and colleges. As I said in a reply a moment ago, when you visit a GP practice, you will be offered these treatments.

My Lords, given that health is a devolved matter, will the Minister give us some assurance that the information and data collected in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in England, are on a consistent basis? If he is uncertain, could he link up with those respective Governments to ensure that that is the case?

The noble Lord asks a very important question. It is important that the quality of data throughout the United Kingdom is high. I will certainly look into that and feed back to the noble Lord.