Children aged two and three will be vaccinated against flu for the first time in a raft of new Government measures to prevent a winter health crisis.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt presented the step as part of his strategy to help the most vulnerable during the winter months after announcing an ambitious plan to overhaul the way A&E departments cope with increased pressure.
He told reporters that NHS trusts will have to ensure that 75% of all their staff have been vaccinated against flu to gain access to a new £500 million A&E fund next year.
This winter 53 of the most "at risk" A&E departments across the country will have access to the fund to help them provide extra consultant care, improve care for those with long-term conditions and integrate better with social care teams.
All children aged two to 17 are to be given the flu vaccination through a nasal spray, the Health Department announced today.
The programme was supposed to be rolled out throughout 2014 but experts today said that two-year-olds will be offered the spray from September this year.
The UK will become the first country to offer the flu vaccine to healthy children free of charge.
Healthy children are among those who are least likely to develop complications from being infected by flu, but their close contact with each other means they are more likely to transmit the virus to one another and other vulnerable people.
Latest figures from the Health Protection Agency inidcate that the number of flu cases is continuing to increase.
Several indicators include GP consultation rates, the proportion of calls to NHS Direct and new admissions to intensive care of high dependency units.
Children aged five to 14 in particular have been the group most affected by flu so far this season.
Dr Richard Pebody, head of seasonal flu surveillance at the HPA said: “Vaccination against flu is still the most effective way of preventing the virus in people who are in an ‘at risk’ group, as they are more vulnerable to developing complications from flu.
"This includes people with underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and those with weakened immune systems, as well as older people and pregnant women."
Researchers say flu levels are still very low but overall the results suggest that the English region most affected by the virus is the North East with 19,200 per 100,000.
Dr Alma Adler, Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said: "We now need more people to sign up and let us know how they are feeling so we can study these figures in greater depth and increase our understanding of seasonal flu."
We are seeing an increase in flu activity mainly among school children indicating the start of this year's flu season.
Flu vaccination is still the most effective way of preventing flu and it is not too late to get it so we would encourage all those who are in 'at risk' groups to get vaccinated as they are more vulnerable to developing complications from flu.
These include people with underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and those with weakened immune systems, as well as older people and pregnant women.
An increase in the number of children aged five to 14 falling ill means the flu season has officially begun. Doctors say anti-viral drugs should be given to people at risk of developing complications from flu - and it's not too late to have a vaccination
An increase in the number of children falling ill has signalled the start of the flu season, prompting a doctors' warning to parents to seek out anti-viral drugs.
The rise of flu among school pupils, aged five to 14, leaves several "at risk" groups more vulnerable, the Health Protection Agency said.
Dr Richard Pebody, who monitors seasonal flu for the agency, said: "These include people with underlying conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, lung, liver or renal diseases and those with weakened immune systems, as well as older people and pregnant women."
A separate health survey said reports of flu are highest in North East of England, with 19,200 cases per 100,000.