Flu jab rates were below target for clinically vulnerable groups and the elderly in Windsor and Maidenhead last year, figures reveal, as the Government aims to ramp up vaccinations this autumn.
Free flu immunisation is being offered to millions more people this year in a bid to ease pressure on healthcare services in case Covid-19 continues into the winter. Targets for existing groups are also increasing.
But with uptake rates already falling below required levels across the country, public health experts say achieving the new goals will be a major challenge and have called for extra resources.
Public Health England figures show just 45.7 per cent of clinically “at risk” people in Windsor and Maidenhead had the vaccine between September and February – well below the target of at least 55 per cent.
The group includes those aged between six months and 64 years old with serious diseases, the severely obese and people with learning disabilities who are at greater risk of developing serious complications if they catch flu.
A free vaccine is also offered to people aged 65 or over – the uptake rate in Windsor and Maidenhead for people in this age bracket was 72 per cent – short of the 75 per cent minimum.
The picture was similar across England, where the average uptake rates for both groups were below recommended levels.
The Government wants to expand the programme to include those shielding from the coronavirus and members of their household, health and social care workers, and later to all those aged 50 or over.
It says this could amount to more than 30 million people including existing target groups – double the number of vaccinations recorded in Public Health England’s 2019-20 flu report.
The chief medical officer Chris Whitty has asked health professionals for a “concerted effort” to achieve at least 75 per cent uptake across all eligible groups.
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said “the very real threat of a second wave” of the coronavirus makes this year’s flu programme more important than ever.
He added: “The additional number of patients and ongoing circulation of Covid-19 will be a major challenge for GPs and practices who will be delivering this year’s programme with social distancing measures in place.”
It is essential GPs have adequate supplies of PPE, access to testing, and staff to cope with the new pressures, he said.
Dr Doug Brown, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology, also called for more resources and a high-profile campaign to explain to the public why getting vaccinated is so important.
Free vaccinations are also being extended to children in the first year of secondary school.
It is already offered to all primary school children, and 69.1 per cent of those eligible in Windsor and Maidenhead were vaccinated last winter, within the target of at least 65 per cent.
Nationally, however, the average uptake rate was just 60.4 per cent.
Dr David Elliman, an immunisation spokesman at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said getting this up to 75 per cent including Year 7 pupils is “going to take a lot to achieve”.
“Providing services that can cope with the hoped-for increased uptake in the groups targeted already and then the expansion to all those over 50 will be an immense challenge,” he said.
Dr Elliman added that children – especially younger ones – are “super spreaders” of flu.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We already have some of the best flu vaccine uptake rates in Europe, but this winter more than ever it is vital that everybody eligible gets their flu vaccine to protect themselves and support the NHS and social care.
“The Health Secretary has outlined plans for the biggest flu vaccine programme in UK history and healthcare staff will work to vaccinate more than 30 million people, millions more than received it last year.”