Practices have faced an influx of calls since the Government announced 50 to 64-year-olds will receive flu jabs from 1 December, prompting NHS leaders to criticise how the announcement was made.
In a letter to primary care minister Jo Churchill, the NHS Confederation said ‘the fact that briefing the media appears to have been prioritised over giving prior warning to the primary care sector is unacceptable’.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced to the public last Friday (20 November) that GP practices should deliver flu jabs to patients aged 50 to 64 from 1 December.
The NHS Confederation said in the letter: ‘Already, general practices are fielding a significant volume of calls from healthy over 50-year-olds wanting to know how and when they can receive their flu immunisation at what is already a very busy time for them.
‘Anxiety from the public has understandably been heightened during the pandemic and it appears that little thought was given by the Department to support general practices to be in a confident position to provide this clarity and reassurance to their communities.’
The body added that the Government needed to show ‘greater appreciation’ of the ‘monumental pressures’ the primary care workforce is under and take a more ‘considered and respectful approach’ to making announcements in future.
A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘There have been regular communications with the GMC and BMA on delivering the flu vaccine this season. We provided guidance on ordering extra supplies of vaccine to GPs in October and further deliveries of the phased vaccine supply will be arriving throughout November, December and into the New Year.
‘Those aged 50 to 64 will be eligible for the free flu vaccine from 1 December and they should wait to be contacted by their GP to arrange an appointment or individuals can contact their pharmacy.’
Surge in calls from 50 to 64-year-olds
The flu programme was expanded to include 50 to 64-year-olds this year, along with school children up to Year 7 and shielded patients and their households.
Previously, NHS England said that the over-50s cohort would not be eligible until November at the earliest and subject to vaccine stock availability.
One practice manager, who asked to remain anonymous, told Management in Practice their practice had seen a ‘huge surge’ in calls since Friday’s announcement and ‘patients are understandably frustrated, with some giving the reception team a hard time and a few being quite rude’.
They added: ‘We would have preferred to know beforehand, as we could have sent patients texts to avoid lots of calls to the practice.’
Claire Deare, practice manager at Saxon Spires Practice, Northamptonshire, has also seen an increase in the number of enquiries from 50 to 64-year-olds since Friday.
She said: ‘Reception has been busier and the wait times for getting through on the phone for other callers have increased. We have not had any behaviour that we would describe as aggressive or difficult specifically about the flu immunisation programme.
‘We have noticed that staff are dealing with a greater level of general ‘grumpiness’ from patients the longer the pandemic lasts. A lot of systems are not working the way they should in other parts of the NHS, and this creates frustration.’
Ms Deare added that her practice would have ‘liked some notice’ about the decision to start vaccinating the over-50s.
‘We have only been able to secure an order of the centrally procured supply today (23 November), and we have not been able to order enough for our whole population of 50 to 64-year-olds. We have ordered the maximum amount the approved suppliers have allowed us, and we will have to wait and see if that is enough to meet demand,’ she said.
‘We have no idea how high or low the uptake will be with this population. We will do the best we can with the resources made available to us.’
GPs have also expressed their frustration on Twitter about the lack of prior warning, which they said has meant they could not prepare and prevent phone lines becoming ‘jammed’.
Meanwhile, some practices have posted messages asking patients in the 50 to 64 age group not to phone the practice about this issue.
‘Practices need more information’
Professor Martin Marshall, RCGP chair, said the expansion of the flu vaccination campaign to include patients aged 50 to 64 is ‘sensible’, but warned the scale of work facing general practice must not be underestimated, particularly as vaccinating this new cohort will likely be running alongside a Covid-19 vaccination programme.
He added: ‘It’s is now vital that GPs and our teams receive details of how this will work in conjunction with the Covid-19 programme, as soon as they are available – as well as clarity on what tasks can be scaled back in general practice to create capacity to do this alongside continuing to deliver the vital care GPs and our teams do so on a daily basis.’