Ministers were today accused of failing to learn lessons from the pandemic after scrapping free flu vaccines for millions of over-50s and children.
People aged 50 to 64 and pupils in years 7 to 11 will not be eligible for the jabs next winter – reversing a decision to scale up the free rollout during the Covid crisis.
The move, which only applies to England, will affect around 10million people who will need to pay up to £14.50 for a shot if they want to get vaccinated.
Pharmacists described the change as ‘worrying’, warning that two years of WFH and lockdowns has left people particularly vulnerable for next winter because immunity is ‘lower than ever’.
Dr Simon Clarke, an infectious disease expert, told MailOnline that ministers seemed ‘determined’ to rapidly ‘dismantle’ the safeguards built up during the pandemic.
The move appears to go against advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which said expanding the rollout was ‘highly cost effective’.
NHS sources insisted the move had been approved on the back of updated guidance from the JCVI.
‘We’re not learning from lessons of the pandemic – the lack of preparedness we went into Covid with,’ said Dr Clarke, from Reading University.
‘They [ministers] have admitted we could have a new Covid variant next winter… do we really want flu tripping us up too? I don’t think so. But they are not interested in learning any lessons and think they’ve beat this pandemic so everything can go back to normal.’
The NHS has scrapped free flu jabs for millions of people aged over 50 as the organisation chose to reverse its policy to pre-pandemic conditions (stock photo)
One source with close ties to the rollout told The Telegraph that the move was ‘reckless’ and financially driven.
He said: ‘Given that the next pandemic might be caused by the influenza virus it seems extremely reckless to to cut the flu vaccine programme.’
The Government originally expanded the free flu vaccine rollout to all over-50s, households of those on the shielded patient list and children in the first year of secondary school in July 2020 amid fears of a post-lockdown surge in influenza cases.
The programme was expanded to even more children last year, with a record 35million invites sent out this winter — compared to 25million pre-Covid.
But in guidance issued this week on the NHS England website, officials say eligibility will be scaled back again in 2022/23.
The letter told NHS workers and pharmacies: ‘We would like to extend a huge thank you to all those involved for your hard work during very challenging times which led to some of the best flu vaccine uptake rates ever achieved.’
WHO’S ELIGIBLE NEXT WINTER?
- People aged 65 and over
- Children (over six months) and adults (under 65) in clinical risk groups
- All children aged two to 10 on August 31, 2022
- Pregnant women
- Care home residents
- Close contacts of immunocompromised people
- Frontline health and social care workers
Four million secondary school children will no longer be eligible for the free shots and neither will around 6million people aged 50 to 64.
But people who live with extremely vulnerable people will still receive an invite, along with those aged 65 and older and immunocompromised people.
Children aged two to ten, pregnant women, care home residents and carers will also still be eligible for the free flu jab.
Ms Guerrini, from Medino, told MailOnline that the scaling back of the programme was ‘quite worrying’.
She added: ‘It’s important to note that immune systems are lower than ever due to our bodies having had a lower amount of exposure to viruses than normal over the last two years.
‘Before the pandemic our bodies were exposed to microbes on daily commutes, in the office, nightclubs or supermarkets.
‘Frequent exposure to germs and microbes builds up our immune system, but due to the lack of that and increased awareness of hygiene, we haven’t been exposed as much as usual and we have all become a lot more vulnerable to viral colds and flus.’
There were warnings there could be a big flu outbreak this winter but those fears never materialised – possibly due to the ultra-infectious Omicron strain keeping it out.
The guidance comes despite the JCVI, Britain’s expert vaccine advisory group, keen to continue with an expanded rollout in December.
Minutes from the meeting said the group ‘remained supportive of fully extending the childhood programme on a routine basis which is highly cost effective’.
It added that it would be ‘acceptable to vaccinate 50 to 64-year-olds for the 2022-23 season if funding available’.
The final decision on the rollout was made by the Department of Health and Social Care.
Dr Clarke told MailOnline that the decision to narrow the programme was short-sighted.
‘I think that there are a lot of work days taken out by flu in bad flu year and that alone would be enough to justify the need for it.
‘By announcing this now, it means we [England] probably aren’t purchasing the extra doses in advance. If we do have a bad flu year, there wont be a lot of vaccine.
‘Flu always has a chance of causing us trouble and the reason we haven’t had it bad in the past couple of years is because there hasn’t been a lot of mixing or international travel.’
But others believe the Government has made the right move.
Dr Karol Sikora, an oncologist and expert in medicine at the University of Buckinghamshire, said he was in favour of saving ‘a few quid’ if it meant more money could go to other things like cancer care.
Professor Paul Hunter said the country was simply ‘getting back to the situation pre-Covid’.
He told MailOnline: ‘It’s not unexpected. Providing that Covid and the impact of Covid on health services continues to reduce, then I think it is appropriate.
‘But if it all goes pear-shaped between now and winter, and Covid starts going off the rails again, then the decision might need to be reversed.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Thanks to the success of the Covid vaccination programme and treatments available to individuals most at risk, we are now able to live with Covid and it is right that we return our other vaccination programmes such as flu back to pre-pandemic levels.
‘In 2022/23, it is planned that NHS flu vaccines will be offered to patients eligible in line with pre-pandemic recommendations as set out in the reimbursement letter sent by the NHS to clinicians this week.
‘We are incredibly grateful to all the staff across health and social care who played their part in the successful flu campaign over the last year.’