UK plans biggest flu vaccine rollout this winter

Nurse in protective gear giving patient a vaccination

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Free flu vaccines will be offered to children aged two to 16, as well as people aged 50 and over or in “at-risk” groups this winter, as the UK faces the double threat of Covid and influenza.

Experts hope for a record-breaking rollout reaching more than 35 million people, including more teenagers than ever before.

Last winter there was a high uptake, with 19 million doses given.

Under-16s will be offered the vaccine in nasal spray rather than as a jab.

An expanded secondary school programme means, for the first time, pupils up to Year 11 (aged 11 to 16) will be invited, not just those in their first academic year – Year 7 – like last winter.

When the programme begins in September, the flu vaccine will be available for free on the NHS to:

  • all children aged two and three on 31 August 2021
  • all children in primary school and all secondary school pupils aged 11 to 16
  • those aged six months to under 50 years in clinical risk groups
  • pregnant women
  • those aged 50 years and over
  • unpaid carers
  • close contacts of people with weak immune systems (immunocompromised individuals)
  • front-line health and adult social care staff

People who are not in these groups will be able to pay for a flu vaccine at some supermarkets and High Street chemists, once available.

Flu levels were lower than expected across the world last winter, which experts attribute to infection control measures introduced to stop Covid, such as mask wearing, social distancing and lockdowns.

It is not clear what this winter may hold for flu and Covid.

Research from Public Health England, carried out in the first pandemic wave before any Covid vaccine had been made or given, suggests risk of death is more than doubled for people who catch flu on top of coronavirus, compared to coronavirus alone.

Flu by itself can also be a serious condition – it kills about 1,000 people in England each year.

Alongside the flu drive, the government is preparing for a booster programme of Covid vaccines for those most vulnerable, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: “Last winter, flu activity was extremely low, but this is no reason for complacency as it means less people have built up a defence against the virus.

“Combined with the likelihood that Covid will still be circulating, this makes the coming flu season highly unpredictable.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We want to build a wall of protection by immunising a record number of people.

“With the nation getting closer to normal life, we must learn to live with Covid-19 alongside other viruses and we’re offering the free flu jab to millions more people to help keep them safe this winter.”