Swine flu vaccination 'to be delayed by at least six weeks'
By Lilian Anekwe
Exclusive: The GPC have warned the swine flu vaccination campaign may face a six-week delay, after Pulse revealed there would be virtually no crossover between the seasonal and swine flu priority groups.
The GPC said the seasonal flu vaccine and the first of the two doses of swine flu vaccine would be given at the same time whenever there was crossover.
But it warned the mismatch between priority groups made it almost inevitable that the swine flu campaign would have to be delayed – perhaps by as much as six weeks.
Such a delay would ruin the Government's plans of having the first doses of swine flu vaccine available by the end of August. Instead, the vaccine would not become available until October at the earliest - when a major surge of swine flu cases is expected.
Dr Peter Holden, the GPC lead negotiator on pandemic flu, told Pulse: ‘We will be negotiating on the assumption that in patients eligible for seasonal and swine flu vaccines, one of the swine flu doses will be given at the same time.
‘But the August prediction is far too optimistic. I don't think we will have confidence to deliver both vaccination campaigns until at least six weeks later.'
Dr Holden advised GPs to begin cleaning patient lists and clearing fridge space to ensure they were as prepared as possible for what could be a logistical nightmare.
The warning comes as a senior Government adviser told Pulse that a provisional ‘pecking order' had been drawn up for the swine flu campaign, with NHS staff, pregnant women and young children at the front of the queue.
Elderly patients – the main focus of the seasonal flu campaign – are set to be made to wait for swine flu vaccination, dashing hopes that GPs could hold combined flu clinics.
Although most of the swine flu campaign will be run by GPs, Department of Health documents seen by Pulse reveal school nurses and pharmacists may also be drafted in to help.
An adviser to the DH, who spoke to Pulse on condition of anonymity, said GPs would be among the first to get the vaccine. After healthcare professionals, the order of priority would be: pregnant women, children under five, adults under 65 with a chronic illness and all remaining under-18s.
The source said: ‘That's the tentative pecking order. It's almost certain GPs and healthcare professionals will be vaccinated first, because you've got to keep your workforce going.
‘Older people are not a priority group for swine flu vaccination as it seems everybody born before 1958 might have been exposed to this H1N1 virus.'
The DH, which has set a target for everyone to be vaccinated against swine flu within one year, insisted no final decision on priority groups had been made and that it was discussing the matter with its ‘scientific experts'. It has vowed to make the first doses of the vaccine available in August, with the seasonal campaign due to begin in September.
GPC negotiators are still locked in discussions with the DH over funding. Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the GPC, said: ‘Swine flu vaccination is most likely to cover different groups than the seasonal campaign. It won't be appropriate to expect it to be done with the same resources.'
GPs warned they could be overwhelmed once the two vaccination campaigns began.
Dr James Larcombe, a GP in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, said: ‘We'll have to be careful to ensure quality of care doesn't suffer – the chances are we'll miss some QOF targets.'
A Department of Health spokesperson said:"The vaccination programme has not been delayed - a date has not been decided as the vaccine is still in development and has not been licensed.'
'The manufacturers have told us that we can expect the first supplies of the vaccine from Baxter in August and from GSK later in September. This is not the Department of Health's schedule - it is led by the manufacturers.'
'Pandemic flu vaccine production has not had an impact on the seasonal flu vaccine - the production of seasonal flu vaccine is complete and scheduled to be delivered at the usual time.'How campaigns match up
Swine flu vaccine
• Order of priority:
– healthcare professionals
– pregnant women
– under-65s with a chronic illness
• Patients over 65 likely to be called last
• No priority for poultry workers
• Two vaccines to be given three weeks apart – funding undecided
Seasonal flu vaccine
• All patients over 65
• Patients under 65 with certain long-term medical conditions
• Healthcare professionals and social workers
• Poultry workers
• One vaccination, reimbursed at £7.51 per patient