The Government must do more to ensure as many people as possible seek vaccinations this year, in addition to equipping GP practices with the resources they need to deliver the winter flu vaccination programme, the BMA has said.
In a report looking at immunisation coverage in the UK, the association pointed to recent figures showing routine childhood vaccinations had declined by 20% since the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, and a ‘concerning fall’ in coverage rates in recent years.
The BMA said the Government must act to ensure ‘more people are aware of the benefits of routine vaccinations’, including for MMR. It also noted ‘worrying reports’ regarding fears some people have about a possible Covid-19 vaccine and the implications this could have for general uptake.
The association has called for the introduction of ‘local coordinators’ to promote vaccination uptake, ‘particularly among seldom-heard communities, or among groups where there are commonly differences in uptake associated with ethnicity, socioeconomic status or religious belief’.
Nurseries and schools should also review immunisation status on entry and liaise with GP practices to provide missing vaccinations, it added.
Funding and staff cuts
The BMA report found that funding cuts to local councils in England in recent years have been ‘widely cited as one cause of falling vaccination numbers in the country’.
Cuts to health visitor numbers and school nurses in England are also ‘reducing the availability of immunisation advice and services,’ the report said.
Dr Peter English, chair of the BMA’s public health medicine committee, said: ‘It’s been incredibly worrying to watch the decline in vaccine rates in the UK over the past few years. The pandemic has of course meant even fewer vaccinations have been carried out as the NHS battled on all fronts to keep the virus at bay.
‘As we recover from this pandemic, everything must be done to increase vaccine uptake, particularly as we head into flu season and vulnerable people are at greater risk of becoming ill.’
He added: ‘This means not only making sure the public understands the importance of getting vaccinated, but also resourcing the health service with what it needs to deliver this; adequate funding for immunisation programmes, IT services, and encouraging staff to protect themselves too.’
Meeting the demand
The BMA also warned that current funding levels are ‘creating pressure’ on services provided by general practice, including vaccination programmes. It called on the Government to increase the sector’s share of the total NHS budget – which currently stands at 8.1% – to at least 11%.
Last Friday, the Department of Health and Social Care announced more groups would become eligible for free flu vaccinations, and set a target of reaching 30 million people this winter.
The BMA also urged the Government to take steps to ensure sufficient stocks of flu vaccination are available for all at-risk populations and staff. However, it has emerged that the Government expects GP practices to use the flu stock they have already ordered to deliver this year’s expanded programme in the first instance.