NHS England has announced that it will recommission a controversial pharmacy flu vaccine service for the 2016/17 season, despite criticism from GPs.
Last September officials offered payment to community pharmacists in England to administer flu jabs as part of the country's annual vaccination scheme, the idea being to offer greater convenience for those wishing to be immunised and thus expand the potential reach.
However, GP leaders have criticised the move, arguing that it has actually served to reduce uptake, with government data (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/503124/January_2016_Seasonal_flu_GP_patients_01Sept_31Jan.pdf) released earlier this year showing decreases across all patient cohorts.
Also, the pharmacy scheme has fragmented the immunisation service, wasting significant amounts of cash through unused stockpiles of flu vaccine at GP surgeries because practices are finding it much more challenging to effectively plan for their flu clinics, critics argue.
The Royal College of General Practitioners warned in November last year that 6% fewer flu jabs had been given by GPs, with some family doctors claiming their surgery fridges 'are full' of unused vaccines because patients are not turning up in the usual numbers.
"The danger is that GPs for the coming season, fearful of being left with unused vaccines, will under-order resulting in problems with supplies should an epidemic hit and demand suddenly increase," Dr Andrew Green, prescribing subcommittee lead at the British Medical Association's (BMA) General Practitioners Committee (GPC), told GPonline last month.
"Anyone suggesting that this is a measure to help with GP workload is being mischievous, if that were the case, why were negotiations being carried out in secret without involving the profession who should be oh-so-grateful for the assistance."
NHS England said that a total of 10,407,913 seasonal flu vaccinations were delivered in 2015/16, which included an additional 240,259 additional patients choosing to receive their jabs in community pharmacy compared to the previous year. "The number of the most vulnerable patients receiving flu vaccination (those in an 'at risk' category and pregnant women) also increased, despite the mild winter," it said.
"Our flu vaccination service made it possible for nearly a quarter of a million more people last year to receive a vaccination in their local community pharmacy of choice," noted Keith Ridge, chief pharmaceutical officer. "We are pleased to confirm that we will continue to offer this more convenient option to the public during the year ahead."
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS Services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee also applauded the move, noting that the "early announcement of recommissioning will help pharmacy contractors prepare for provision of this important service and is to be welcomed".