The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is ‘more scared than we have ever been’ about the risks of a heavy flu season this winter, amid fears the vaccination may fail to protect the elderly. The Daily Telegraph quotes Sir Malcolm Grant, chair of NHS England, as saying he fears hospitals will be “inundated” with cases, despite attempts to bolster services.
The report says his warnings came as the country’s chief medical officer said she fears the flu vaccine may not protect the elderly this winter, but said it is still “our best hope” to stave off an NHS crisis. Dame Sally Davies, England’s most senior doctor has urged 21m people eligible for free vaccinations – including young children, pensioners, and health workers – to take up the jabs.
The report says last year’s jab had zero effectiveness among over 65s, an official evaluation has revealed, while protecting two in three children and it notes that this year’s programme will push further on trying to protect those who come into contact with pensioners, in case the vaccination fails as badly this year.
In a letter sent to all NHS workers, staff are told to “do their duty” and get vaccinated – with those who opt out told they will have to explain themselves and more than 1m care home workers will also be offered the jab, in a bid to reduce levels of transmission to vulnerable residents.
The report says health officials are anxious about how hospitals will cope if patterns seen in Australia – which has just battled the worst flu season for almost two decades – are replicated in the UK.
An evaluation of the 2016 flu vaccination programme shows pensioners who had the jab fared no better than those who did not. Protection rates were far higher among children, with 66% protection, the figures show. And, the report says, this year’s vaccine is similar to last year’s, which failed to effectively counter strains like those which have recently proved virulent in Australia.
As well as focussing on children, who are “super-spreaders” of the vaccine, officials hope heavy vaccination of NHS and care staff who come into contact with the elderly will help to reduce the risk of transmission.
NHS bosses are writing to all 1.4m staff to say they must have the winter flu jab as soon as possible to reduce the risk of them infecting patients who might die. And, The Guardian reports, those who decline the jab will have to tell the NHS trust that employs them why, and it will have to record their reasons, as part of a bid to drive up what the NHS admits are “disappointing” staff take-up rates.
NHS bosses have got tough on staff’s jab uptake as part of a new series of “intensified cross-NHS winter preparations” in a bid to reduce the estimated 8,000 annual deaths from flu in England and Wales. The report says they are sending out letters to healthcare workers across England urging them to get vaccinated as soon as possible, to reduce the risk of them passing on the flu virus to vulnerable patients, especially older people and those with breathing problems such as asthma, pneumonia and emphysema. It is staff’s professional duty to have the jab, they say.
The letter says: “As winter approaches it is worth reminding ourselves that flu can have serious and even fatal consequences.
“Healthcare workers, as members of the general population, are susceptible to flu. When coupled with the potential for a third of flu cases being transmitted by asymptomatic individuals, it means patients are at particular risk.”
In another previously unused tactic, NHS England bosses are writing to all 234 NHS trusts telling them to do much more to ensure staff have the jab. “We require each NHS organisation to ensure that each and every eligible member of staff is personally offered the flu vaccine, and then either signs the consent form or states if they decline to do so,” that letter says.
“This move to help keep care workers stay well during flu season is a really positive step by the NHS. Not only will it help to protect thousands of care home residents from getting sick, but it sends a strong signal about the importance of social care staff in providing an integrated health and care service,” said Imelda Redmond, the national director of the campaign group Healthwatch England.
Last winter, 133 people died as a direct result of flu after being treated in an intensive care or high-dependency unit in England, the report quotes Public Health England as saying.