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Staff flu vaccine uptake down on last year, despite winter fears

Published on: 3 Dec 2021

Early uptake of the flu vaccine by frontline NHS staff slumped this year, with only two in five having received it by the end of October, official figures show.

Last year, uptake at that point was 51.6 per cent, according to figures submitted to Public Health England and uptake reached 76.9 per cent by the end of February this year, slightly ahead of 2019-20 when it was 74.3 per cent.

But provisional figures from the UK Health Security Agency – which is now responsible for collating the figures – show uptake to the end of October was just 39.5 per cent.

That is despite high-level concerns about winter pressures this year and a possible resurgence of non-covid infectious illnesses.

An NHS England and Improvement spokesman told HSJ: “This data set in question is incomplete, with only 80 per cent of trusts having contributed to this return. We continue to promote flu vaccination uptake across healthcare workers and have made additional flu supplies available to organisations where they need it.”

However, the figures given are a percentage of staff involved in direct patient care whose vaccination data has been provided, not of staff offering direct patient care at all trusts. Although fewer organisations have returned data this year than last (when 95 per cent gave submissions), the lower response rate is very unlikely to fully explain the drop.

The government’s target for this year is at least 85 per cent of such staff being vaccinated against flu. This high target reflects concern about the impact of covid and flu circulating simultaneously in the community. As well as being dangerous to individuals who are infected with both, this could have severe consequences for NHS staffing.

This year’s slow start is likely to mean more NHS staff go into the main flu season at risk of catching it. There was relatively little flu around in the winter of 2020-21 because of severely limited international travel and social mixing, but this winter could see a resurgence.

NHS vaccination teams are at the same time delivering the covid booster programme, with many NHS staff having become eligible for a booster in October, six months after their second dose.

Figures from the UKHSA show that 40.4 per cent of healthcare workers involved in direct patient care had their covid booster between 1 September and 31 October this year.

Flu vaccination levels to the end of October varied significantly across England. The UKHSA figures show that London was the poorest performing region at just 31.5 per cent of staff involved in direct patient care vaccinated, while East of England, the highest, was on 47.5 per cent.

At the same point last year London was at 49 per cent and all regions were within a few percentage points.

A spokesperson for NHS England’s London team said: “Current published data does not accurately reflect the full extent of staff flu vaccination uptake in the capital, and we have seen that over 8,000 more trust staff have come forward for their flu vaccine compared to this time last year, as eligibility has widened.”

Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust had the lowest rate in the country at just 7.1 per cent but said the data was incorrect and would be updated. A spokeswoman said the current figures were 62 per cent for frontline staff.

Dorset Healthcare University FT had vaccinated just 9.9 per cent of patient-facing staff against flu by the end of October, according to UKHSA figures which are based on submissions from trusts. This made it the second lowest. However, the trust said it did not recognise the figures.

Director of nursing, therapies and quality Dawn Dawson said: “We know that there is a lower uptake for flu jabs more generally across NHS providers this year and our own overall uptake to date for patient facing staff is around 42 per cent. This is a slower uptake rate than last year and we are currently analysing the reasons for this.”