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Ministers plan £40m savings through central flu jab ordering

By Lilian Anekwe

Stripping GPs of the right to order their own stocks of flu vaccine for their patients and switching to central procurement would save £40m, the Department of Health says.

Central procurement was proposed last year by health secretary Andrew Lansley as a way to avoid the 'localised supply issues' experienced in the 2010/11 seasonal flu campaign, when GP practices in several areas were left without sufficient stocks to vaccinate at-risk patients and ministers were heavily criticised by the media.

Launching a consultation on central stock procurement, Mr Lansley said: 'We believe significant improvements could be made to the current system, potentially leading to better availability of vaccine and cost savings.'

The consultation document, published today, says the existing system 'suggests that it does not provide the best approach within the NHS. In particular, the localised vaccine shortages experiences in the winter of 2010/11 suggest that a more robust procurement arrangement may be required.'

'Since 2005, there have been two years when there were shortages of seasonal flu vaccine, although there has also been on year when practices retuned considerable quantities of surplus vaccines to suppliers.'

'The Government wishes to reduce the risk of similar shortfalls in stock for future years. It believes that central procurement would assist with this by allowing greater flexibility in deployment of stock and the possibility of building in a small strategic reserve, over and above GP requirements.'

The DH proposal is to hold one or several contracts with flu vaccine manufacturers, following a tendering exercise, as is currently the case for the childhood vaccination programme.

The DH would estimate the amount of vaccine needed for the next flu season based on data provided by GPs and other providers. As now, GPs would need to identify their eligible populations and planned uptake rates.

GPs would place order via on online system, which would then be distributed from the DH's central stockpile – either centrally or direct from manufacturers.

'The main benefit of central procurement would be the savings that could be achieved for the NHS, estimated to be £40m a year.'

An additional benefit would be to improve uptake amongst patients aged over 65 and those in clinical risk groups, which has 'stalled' because, the document says, 'under the current arrangements GPs incur a financial risk in seeking to improve vaccine uptake rates, as they have to purchase additional vaccine… which may then not be used. Under central procurement GPs would no longer incur that financial risk.'

But the document makes clear GPs would lose out as 'the cost of the administration fee currently paid to GPs in recognition of work to procure the vaccine would be saved.'

The consultation runs until 17 August 2011, and the DH will seek feedback from the BMA and RCGP, as well as GPs.

The DH has proposed procuring flu jabs centrally to avoid shortfalls