Boots has suspended bookings for flu jabs amid an ‘unprecedented’ demand for vaccinations this winter.
The high-street chemist is now limiting vaccines for the most vulnerable in society, including the over-65s and people with serious underlying health woes.
NHS England has been actively encouraging people to get their flu jab this year to prevent an influx of influenza and Covid-19 patients overwhelming hospitals.
Normally, anyone can sign up to have their shot by a Boots’ pharmacist but this year the chain has had to prioritise the most at-risk groups to make sure they’re first in line.
Elderly people and those with co-morbidities have the highest chance of needing hospital care if they catch the flu. Therefore, they are they most likely to be a burden on the NHS as it struggles with a second wave of coronavirus.
NHS England says it has enough stocks to supply a record 30million-plus doses during phases throughout winter.
WHO IS ALREADY ELIGIBLE FOR A FREE FLU VACCINE?
In 2020/21 groups eligible for the NHS funded flu vaccination programme are currently the same as last year.
But according to a joint letter issued from the DHSC, Public Health England and, NHS England and Improvement, on May 14, the list may change if the programme is expanded this year.
This could include:
The letter added: ‘We anticipate that concerns about COVID-19 may increase demand for flu vaccination in all groups this year.’
In a statement, Boots said: ‘This year, our customers have been more conscious than ever about protecting the health of themselves and their families, and protecting against flu has been front-of-mind for many of us.
‘As a result, we have seen more people than ever booking early to get their flu vaccinations.’
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘Delivery of flu vaccinations is phased over the autumn and into winter, and priority is rightly given to those who are most at-risk with others being asked to wait to later in the year.’
This year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the flu jab will be offered to the over-50s for the first time. In Scotland, it’s being given to the over-55s.
But these groups will only be given access after the vulnerable groups – which include over-65s, pregnant women, and people with conditions like lung disease or diabetes.
Last winter 25million people in England were offered the flu jab, with officials expanding the annual vaccination programme to include all Year Six children for the first time.
All over-65s, pregnant women, NHS workers and people with serious long-term illnesses such as heart disease and Parkinson’s are also eligible for the free jab.
Figures show there are around 10million people aged between 50 and 65 in the UK, meaning the vaccination scheme has had to increase by 40 per cent in size to catch all of them.
Supplying the flu jab will be a logistical challenge for the NHS because the vaccine has to be kept in a refrigerator at 35F to 46F (2C to 8C). A slight rise or fall in temperature can ruin the shot and make it unusable.
But NHS England has reassured people there are adequate stocks in place. Health bosses say they will provide guidance for how pharmacists and GPs can access stockpiles if they run out.
It is not clear if the UK will be hit with a bad bout of flu this year. Some experts believe the social distancing measures in place already will stifle the spread of any new influenza strains.
Flu infections during the cold long months in the southern hemisphere are a canary in a coalmine for how hard the NHS will be hit by outbreaks, and are used to design the preventative flu vaccine. And this year Australia and New Zealand have escaped a bad flu season, which top experts say is down to social distancing measures.
Most people who get the flu escape with only a mild illness but patients struck down with a severe bout can be hospitalised. Seasonal flu has a mortality rate of around 0.1 per cent.
The tell-tale symptoms of Covid-19 — a fever, cough and the loss of smell or taste — could be mistaken for the flu, which has similar effects and is much worse than a common cold.
This could cause confusion among the population. If they have the coronavirus, they may think they only have the flu if they have not been given a vaccine to protect them.
Video: Warning over dire consequences of Covid and flu ‘co-infection’ (PA Media)