Free flu vaccines will be made available to more than 35 million people including all secondary school students this winter, ministers have announced.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced on Saturday that the seasonal flu programme beginning in September will be the biggest in the UK’s history and urged everyone eligible to take up the jab.
Mr Javid said: “Flu can be a serious illness and we want to build a wall of protection by immunising a record number of people.
“With the nation getting closer to normal life, we must learn to live with Covid-19 alongside other viruses and we’re offering the free flu jab to millions more people to help keep them safe this winter.
“The phenomenal scale of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is a clear demonstration of the positive impact vaccination can make and I encourage all those eligible to get their flu jab when called forward.”
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The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that, due to Covid measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and reduced foreign travel, flu levels across the world were lower than expected in 2020-21.
But it is possible there will be higher levels this winter with more of the population susceptible given the low levels last season, it added.
Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said: “Last winter, flu activity was extremely low, but this is no reason for complacency as it means less people have built up a defence against the virus.
“Combined with the likelihood that Covid-19 will still be circulating, this makes the coming flu season highly unpredictable.”
The DHSC, NHS England and Improvement, and Public Health England have issued the 2021-22 annual flu letter to providers, setting out plans for this year’s expanded programme.
From September, providers will offer the flu vaccine to more 35 million people, including all secondary school students up to Year 11 for the first time, the DHSC said.
Other groups eligible for the free jab include children aged two and three on August 31, all primary school children, people aged 50 and over, pregnant women, unpaid carers, and frontline health and adult social care staff.
The enlarged flu drive will build on last year’s expanded flu programme the DHSC said, which saw a record 19 million jabs being administered.
The expanded flu programme is expected to be delivered alongside any booster programme for Covid-19 vaccines.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is expected to publish its final advice on the Covid booster jab programme later this summer, the DHSC said.
The committee last month published interim guidance setting out the priority list for who should get a third jab if a booster programme is needed.
The first stage will see 15 million of the most vulnerable people across the UK offered a booster including over-70s, health and care workers, older care home residents, the clinically extremely vulnerable, and people who are immunocompromised.
The second stage will extend to a further 17 million people including over-50s, adults over the age of 16 who usually are offered a free NHS flu jab, those aged 16-49 in a Covid at-risk group, and people who are in regular contact with someone who is immunocompromised.
In a letter to senior leaders, GPs and hospital bosses earlier this month, NHS England said health systems should prepare to deliver booster doses of Covid-19 vaccine between September 6 and December 17.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said people will need to be vaccinated for flu and Covid for “years to come” and needed to be delivered alongside other work.
He added: “Rolling out a flu programme of this scale alongside a Covid booster campaign will take a huge amount of planning, collaboration and commitment, particularly from primary care.
“It is incredibly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and while we have no doubt the NHS can meet this challenge, we do need to think about how we enable NHS staff to carry out this programme while meeting the other pressures they face.
“We’ll be vaccinating against flu and Covid for years to come so let’s put our approach on a sustainable footing as soon as possible.”