Coronavirus and flu jabs will be rolled out earlier than planned in England this year due to the emergence of a new Covid variant. NHS England bosses warned that there could be “a very challenging winter” ahead if the variant increased the risk of infection.
The vaccines will be offered to people over 65, older adult care home residents and immunosuppressed people from September 11, with plans to jab as many eligible people as possible by October 31. According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), little is known about the new variant BA.2.86, but it has appeared in several countries and has a high number of mutations.
Although it is not classified as a variant of concern, health chiefs believe speeding up the autumn vaccination programme will protect those at greatest risk of becoming seriously ill. The move could also reduce the impact on the NHS, which is already under huge pressure, this winter.
However, some pharmacists are critical of the short-notice changes to the plan, saying it has “created confusion for pharmacy teams trying to make plans”. The vaccination programme usually starts in September, but the government pushed it back to October in order to produce a shorter gap between the jabs being administered and winter viruses circulating.
Tase Oputu, director of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “The government must plan ahead more decisively next year to avoid such uncertainty.”
Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA, said new Covid variants were expected to emerge. She added: “As with all emergent and circulating Covid-19 variants - both in the UK and internationally - we will continue to monitor BA.2.86 and to advise government and the public as we learn more. In the meantime, please come forward for the vaccine when you are called.”
In Scotland, the autumn vaccination programme starts on September 4. Covid jabs will be on offer to anyone over 65, while flu jabs will go to the over-50s.
People eligible for a free flu vaccine are listed on the NHS UK website.