Children aged two and three will be vaccinated against flu for the first time in a raft of new government measures to prevent a winter health crisis.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt presented the step as part of his strategy to help the most vulnerable during the winter months after announcing an ambitious plan to overhaul the way A&E departments cope with increased pressure.
He told reporters that NHS trusts will have to ensure that 75% of all their staff have been vaccinated against flu to gain access to a new £500m A&E fund next year.
This winter 53 of the most “at risk” A&E departments across the country will have access to the fund to help them provide extra consultant care, improve care for those with long-term conditions and integrate better with social care teams.
In the long-term, the health secretary has said he intends to create a more “joined up” service with measures such as the creation of an IT system which allows hospitals, GPs and social care to share patient records.
“This winter is going to be tough - that’s why the government is acting now to make sure patients receive a great, safe service, even with the added pressures the cold weather brings,” Mr Hunt said.
“But this is a serious, long-term problem which needs fundamental changes to equip our A&Es for the future.
“In the long term I want a 24/7 service which recognises patients as individuals and looks out for them proactively,” he said. “Starting with our most vulnerable, this government is going to support the NHS in doing exactly that.”
Around 750,000 patients attend their GPs with flu-like symptoms each year and 27,000 are admitted to hospital with the infection.
Mr Hunt said the NHS would be launching a campaign this year to help prevent flu from impacting services.
Care minister Norman Lamb said that, in the long-term, A&E departments needed a more co-ordinated approach across the NHS to relieve mounting pressures.
He said: “We have a crisis occurring which could have been avoided. The system is dysfunctional because it is not joined-up.”
The number of patients using A&E departments has grown by 32% over the last decade, with one million patients more every year since 2010.
With an ageing population, the pressure is set to increase - the over-65s currently represent 17% of the population but 68% of NHS bed use.
Half of the government’s £500m healthcare fund will be spent this winter and go to hospitals which are deemed at risk of falling short of A&E targets.
End-of-life care and hospices will receive around £57m, second only to the £62m to create additional capacity in hospitals.
In the long term, care for older people will be joined up between social services and hospitals using a £3.8bn integrated care fund announced by the Chancellor.
Other possibilities that the government is considering ahead of a consultation next year is the possibility that ambulances may take on more responsibilities in providing care.
Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The pressures on A&E are symptomatic of wider problems across the system and we hope that today’s announcement indicates investment in a longer-term approach to solving these problems.
“We are pleased to see an investment in end-of-life care, which we hope will improve the consistency of training provided in this important area for healthcare staff.
“We also hope the inclusion of funding for district nursing will be the start of a much greater focus on community services, which can relieve much of the pressure on emergency departments if properly resourced.
“Nurses and healthcare assistants are working exceptionally hard caring for every patient, but are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the strain on resources in emergency departments,” he added.
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