NHS England has announced that it will recommission its ill-fated pharmacy flu vaccine scheme for the 2016/17 season, despite fears that the scheme has contributed to a fall in uptake of the vaccinations and cost general practice millions of pounds.
A national contract, introduced last September, paid community pharmacists across the whole of England to give flu jabs as part of the annual NHS flu vaccination campaign.
Official figures have shown that uptake of the flu jab has fallen across all target cohorts of the population since the scheme was introduced and the GPC has warned it has disrupted established flu clinics and cost practices as much as £4m in lost vaccine payments.
GP leaders warned last month that renewing the pharmacy scheme risked it further destabilising the programme delivered by GP practices.
Alastair Buxton, PSNC director of NHS Services, said: ‘This early announcement of recommissioning will help pharmacy contractors prepare for provision of this important service and is to be welcomed.’
The terms and fees for the recommissioned service will remain the same as in 2015/16.
NHS England said that further guidance would be issued to contractors once legislation and associated documents have been updated to take into account the recommissioning of the service.
Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the GPC, said: ‘Practices will be frustrated that NHS England is ignoring the evidence that the extension of the flu immunisation scheme this year failed to deliver significant improvements and in fact led to a drop in overall uptake, fragmentation of a previously good service to patients, wasted vaccine that had been pre-ordered by practices and in some cases undermined previously good relationships between practices and pharmacies.’
How the pharmacy flu scheme has impacted on GPs
GP leaders warned that expanding the pharmacy-led scheme last flu season risked leaving GPs out of pocket and disrupting the established flu vaccination campaign, based on results from a series of pilots across England and Wales, including a recently reported London-wide scheme.
So far all the evidence suggests they were right. Coverage has fallen in all at-risk groups, with LMC leaders warning pharmacists were merely competing for ‘low-hanging fruit’ – motivated patients who would normally get their flu jab at their GP practice’s flu clinic.
In some areas pharmacists have ‘poached’ patients from their GP, under advice from NHS bosses. The GPC estimated it may have cost practices collectively as much as £4m in lost vaccine payments.
There are also concerns it is adding to practices’ administrative workload in order to keep track of who has been vaccinated, and disrupted other timely check-ups and services usually delivered at the same time as the flu jab – such as shingles vaccinations in the elderly.