Pharmacy leaders are in talks with NHS England about renewing the national pharmacy flu vaccination contract for a second season, despite concerns the scheme has contributed to a fall in uptake of the vaccinations and cost general practice millions of pounds
Pulse has learnt that pharmacy leaders are pushing for a renewal ‘as soon as possible’ and NHS England said arrangements would be announced ’in the next few weeks’.
But GP leaders said the pharmacy scheme should not be renewed if it has not improved uptake, because of the risk it would further destabilise the programme delivered by GP practices.
The 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.
NHS England said the scheme would help more people get the flu jab, particularly those considered ‘hard to reach’ such as working-age adults who fall into clinical risk groups.
However, official figures have shown that uptake 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.
Despite the fall in uptake and criticisms from the GPC, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) confirmed to Pulse it is in discussions over renewal of the flu contract with NHS England for the coming flu season.
Alastair Buxton, Director of NHS Services at PSNC said in a statement: ‘We hope that the community pharmacy flu vaccination service will be recommissioned for the 2016/17 flu season.
‘We are pressing for an NHS and Department of Health decision on this as soon as possible.’
Asked about the talks with PSNC, an NHS England spokesperson said: ‘We expect to make an announcement in the next few weeks about the arrangements for the 2016/17 seasonal flu programme.’
Dr Andrew Green, chair of the GPC’s clinical and prescribing subcommittee, said: ’This service should only be recommissioned for next year if it can be demonstrated that there has been a significant increase in overall uptake over the last flu season.
’If this cannot be shown there can be no justification for risking the possible adverse effects of fragmenting the established system.’
Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the GPC, said: ‘The reality is that expanding the scheme this year has led to an overall fall in flu immunisation uptake which NHS England and Public Health England need to take serious steps to address.’
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.