A major rift has emerged in the flu vaccination strategy being adopted by England and other Home Nations.
While the Government has said England will ditch the Covid measures which saw the annual flu vaccine given free to adults aged 50-64 and secondary school children aged 11 to 15, Scotland and Wales have broken ranks and declared they will continue to offer a free jab to these groups.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, flu vaccination was offered throughout the UK annually to over-65s, primary school children and at-risk groups such as pregnant women and diabetics.
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland extended the programme in winter 2020 to include millions of adults aged 50-64, as well as teenagers, to limit the number of people hospitalised with flu when wards were being over-run with Covid patients.
The return to the pre-pandemic vaccination programme in England comes at a time when experts fear the UK is heading for the worst flu season since the start of the Covid pandemic.
It’s believed to be the first time there has been a significant divergence approaches to flu vaccination. Senior advisers said they were ‘surprised’ by NHS England’s decision to scrap jabs for the two age groups and were not consulted.
While the Government has said England will ditch the Covid measures which saw the annual flu vaccine given free to adults aged 50-64 and secondary school children aged 11 to 15, Scotland and Wales have broken ranks and declared they will continue to offer a free jab to these groups
Professor Adam Finn, a paediatric vaccine expert and member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the Government on vaccines, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It’s rare for there to be differing vaccination positions across the union, and in this case it appears as though these are Government-led financial decisions because we haven’t been asked to advise.’
Meanwhile, Nick Kaye, the National Pharmacy Association’s vice-chairman, has branded England’s policy reversal as short-sighted.
He added: ‘No one can say for certain that we’ll be through the Covid pandemic by winter.’
Studies suggest that people who catch Covid and flu at the same time are twice as likely to die. However, since most Britons have received at least three Covid vaccines, the Department of Health and Social Care made the decision to scrap free jabs in England. Those not eligible will now have to pay for one, at a cost of about £15 from high street pharmacies.
Wales announced in April that it would still offer the vaccine to over-50s and teenagers, costing its Government £7.85 million.
The nation’s Health and Social Services Minister, Eluned Morgan, said: ‘Covid has not gone away. Ensuring as many people are protected from the flu will not only help individuals and their communities but also protect our NHS.’
Now The Mail on Sunday can confirm Scotland has also decided to continue with the seasonal flu vaccination programme.
In a letter sent to NHS Scotland workers last week and seen by this newspaper, the nation’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Gregor Smith, said that the move would help protect over-50s from suffering infection from both flu and Covid.
Sir Gregor also added that the jab would be offered to 11- to 15-year-olds ‘to protect the educational environment’ following the disruptions caused by Covid.
Both 2020 and 2021 saw record low rates of flu infections. It is thought that social distancing and mask-wearing drastically reduced transmission of the virus.
‘Flu isn’t as infectious as Covid, so it doesn’t take much to stop it taking off,’ said Professor Martin Hibberd, an infectious disease expert at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. ‘Now, with people back to pre-pandemic behaviour in terms of socialising, it stands to reason this year we will see flu return too.’
Wales announced in April that it would still offer the vaccine to over-50s and teenagers, costing its Government £7.85 million. Now, the Mail on Sunday can confirm Scotland has also decided to continue with the seasonal flu vaccination programme
Last week, Public Health Wales warned that it was already seeing more flu cases than it would expect to see at this time of year.
MS Morgan said: ‘We are watching the increase in the numbers of people suffering with flu at the moment. We’re probably more worried about it kicking off in the winter.’
Prof Hibberd said a similar pattern was being seen around the UK: ‘There are definitely more background flu cases now than you’d expect to see, though the figures are still relatively small.’
Professor Finn said that despite the policy to drop the jabs, the risks from flu infection were generally low for 50- to 64-year-olds.
He added: ‘Flu tends to hospitalise the very young or very old. Those in between are not really at risk, so we never used to vaccinate them. Covid came along and we decided to throw everything at flu.
‘But giving more vaccines isn’t always the solution. You’ve got to think about where you draw the line. These extra jabs cost money, and that’s money that could also be spent elsewhere.’
In 2019, more than 26,000 people in England and Wales died of flu, according to the Office for National Statistics. Fewer than 900 of these deaths were in people aged 50 to 64.
Scottish health officials believe free jabs are still necessary for this winter, because along with flu they expect the nation to experience another Covid wave. On May 2, Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, said the country would almost certainly face a resurgence of Covid.
A Scottish Government spokesman said last night: ‘The seasonal flu vaccination programme helps to ensure that we are protected and this will help to alleviate pressure on the NHS.’
What’s the difference between… a tic and a twitch?
The terms are often used interchangeably, as both refer to spasm-like movements, but there are key differences.
Tics are short movements or sounds that occur suddenly. They are usually repetitive habits and are fairly common in childhood, although most children grow out of them within a few months.
Tourette’s syndrome is used to describe tics that last more than a year. It’s not known what causes them, but they are thought to be due to changes in the parts of the brain that control movement. They often run in families.
Twitches are involuntary muscle movements. Although common in the eyes and legs any body part can be affected. They are normally short-lived. Triggers include stress, tiredness, caffeine and alcohol.