Flu vaccine delays put elderly at risk

Fears that vulnerable people may have to wait for their free flu jabs were confirmed today after the government said that stockpiles of the vaccines had been delayed.

The Department of Health (DoH) said that although there would be no shortage, there would be a delay in supply of this year’s 15.2 million doses of the flu vaccine.

By the end of October, nine million vaccines are set to be delivered, compared to last year’s figures of two 10.5 million by this time.

Director of immunisation at the DoH, Dr David Salisbury, wrote to GPs telling them: “While the overall national picture is more positive than we had first thought, the initial delay in production means that delivery of vaccine will be spread over a longer period.”

In a statement released today Dr Salisbury said: “We informed GPs about the industry’s production difficulties at the earliest opportunity, so that they could plan for any potential problems with the supply of the vaccine. I am pleased to say that the industry has produced enough vaccine for the UK, though some deliveries may be later than usual.”

Advising GPs to liaise closely with suppliers when planning vaccination clinics, Mr Salisbury also added redistributing supplies may be necessary in some cases.

The DoH is set to launch an advertising campaign to encourage at-risk patients – including the elderly and people with heart disease or diabetes who are likely to suffer serious side effects from the flu – to get immunised.

“It will be quite a challenge for surgeries to immunise all their at-risk patients before the winter flu season sets in,” said Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee.

Warning that some surgeries may have to wait until December he added: “For some it may be impossible and we will have to hope for a late onset of the annual flu outbreak. There certainly won’t be spare supplies to provide jabs for those not in the at-risk groups.”

Some practices would have to wait until December to receive supplies, Mr Meldrum said, adding: “It really will help us to carry out the job of protecting patients from the effects of flu if patients follow the adage – don’t ring us, we’ll contact you.”

The Liberal Democrats slammed the government for putting vulnerable people at risk by failing “to plan and co-ordinate” delivery of the vaccine.

“It will be a lottery as to whether elderly and sick people get the prompt vaccination that they need to protect them this winter,” said Lib Dem health spokesman Steve Webb.

He added: “If a business was run as incompetently as the Department of Health, the managers would have been sacked a long time ago.”

Three quarters of over-65s were immunised against the flu last year, preventing thousands of deaths.