The government has launched a consultation on the introduction of a central purchasing system for the seasonal flu vaccine, which it says could save the NHS up to £40 million a year.

At present, general practitioners (GPs) order vaccines for seasonal flu directly from manufacturers or suppliers and are paid for providing the service through their contract. However, this arrangement can leave both GPs and the public at risk, as GPs may be left with a surplus, thus leaving them out of pocket, or a shortfall, meaning they are unable to vaccinate everyone in their area who is eligible, says the Department of Health.

A different approach to the way vaccine is ordered and supplied may safeguard both the public and GPs through improving vaccine availability, open up the possibility of achieving higher vaccination uptake in future and help to avoid the localised vaccine shortages experienced in the winter of 2010-11, it suggests.

Under the central purchasing system being proposed, the Department would hold a contract with manufacturers and order vaccine based on GPs’ data relating to their requirements. GPs would then place their orders for the vaccine with the Department.

Central procurement could help prevent shortages by allowing greater flexibility in deployment of stock and the possibility of building in a strategic reserve, and there may also be scope to reduce the £180 million total annual costs of the seasonal flu vaccination programme, says the Department. It is envisaged that the proposed system could save the NHS as much as £40 million a year, as well as reducing the burden on GPs.

Specifically, the consultation is seeks views on: - whether central purchasing will make the system more robust; - whether it will improve vaccine uptake; and - what the implications for value for money will be.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the government welcomes the consultation "as we believe significant improvements could be made to the current system, potentially leading to better availability of vaccine and cost savings."

During the consultation period, the Department will proactively seek feedback from relevant external partners including professional bodies such as the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), vaccine manufactures, vaccine storage and distribution companies, health charities, GPs, and health and social care professionals, Mr Lansley added.

The consultation will run until August 17.