Free flu jabs are to be extended to all care home staff in England, as part of package of new “contingency actions” designed to help frontline services cope with pressures this winter.
NHS England, Public Health England, the Department of Health and NHS Improvement have unveiled a range of measures intended to boost the uptake of flu vaccinations among health and care staff.
“We all have a professional responsibility to protect ourselves”
This will include providing free vaccination for hundreds of thousands of care home staff at a cost of up to £10m, as well as increasing jabs available for young children in schools and vulnerable people.
The bodies highlighted official figures showing that emergency flu and pneumonia admissions from care homes jumped by 16% last year to around 29,000.
Meanwhile, they said trusts had also been told to “ramp up” efforts to ensure nurses, doctors and other staff received the free flu jab.
Although last year saw record take up of influenza vaccination, they noted that more than one in three NHS staff still failed to have the jab, with just one in five being vaccinated in some trusts.
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This year, trusts are being told to make the vaccine readily available to staff without the need to disrupt their work, but also to record why anyone who decides to opt out chose to do so.
Nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers will also receive letters reminding them of their “professional duty” to protect patients by being immunised against influenza.
The letters will come from senior leaders including chief nursing officer for England Professor Jane Cummings and Dr Ruth May, NHS Improvement’s executive director of nursing and deputy CNO.
NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh said: “This is a timely reminder to employers and staff that we all have a professional responsibility to protect ourselves, and by doing so better protect our patients and reducing the pressure on services.”
It follows an earlier warning from NHS England’s chief executive that the signs from Australia and New Zealand were for a “heavy flu season”, with hospitals in those countries “struggling to cope”.
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents independent providers of adult social care, backed the move to extend the free influenza vaccination programme to staff in his sector.
“We applaud NHS England’s policy to offer free flu jabs to workers in care homes,” he said. “Care England has long campaigned on this issue.
“In the past the independent sector has been overlooked and providers have had to foot the bill themselves which in a climate of severe financial pressures has been difficult. Being ready for winter and offering extra capacity to the already stretched NHS is yet another area where the independent sector can help,” he said.
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The actions targeted at health professionals come alongside a significant expansion of the national flu vaccination programme for key groups, aiming to offer the vaccine to over 21 million people.
Children in school year 4 (aged 8-9 year olds) will be offered the vaccine for the first time, in addition to years 1-3, and pupils can get their vaccine in school instead of from their GP surgery.
Professor Martin Green
More maternity services will offer immunisation to pregnant women and GPs and pharmacies will now be paid for vaccinating the morbidly obese.
New statistics have revealed that just under 2.9m bed days were lost to flu and pneumonia last year, up 279,842 from the previous year and 694,582 more than five years ago.
Professor Paul Cosford, Public Health England’s medical director, said: “This year we are offering the nasal spray vaccine to more children than ever.
“Ensuring children get vaccinated is extremely important not only to protect them from flu but also to stop then spreading it to vulnerable groups they come in to contact with,” he said.
Responding to the announcement, Saffron Cordery, director of strategy and policy at the organisation NHS Providers, said she welcomed the measures to support uptake of the flu vaccine.
“We know flu presents a serious potential challenge for services which are already under enormous pressure,” she said. “Steps taken now to stop the spread of flu could make a huge difference.”
“Steps taken now to stop the spread of flu could make a huge difference”
Meanwhile, as part of intensified winter preparations, a new “national emergency pressure panel” will be set up to advise on actions to be taken if the NHS faces significant pressures.
It will will be made up of senior directors from NHS England, NHS Improvement and Public Health England, and be chaired by Sir Bruce Keogh, with some royal college leaders also invited to join.
The NHS’s national urgent and emergency care director will be able to call on the panel to determine system risk levels across the country and whether these should be escalated or de-escalated.
In addition, to tackle medical staffing pressures within accident and emergency departments, a new workforce plan has also been published with input from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM).
It will increase the number of trainees starting emergency medicine next year and central investment to develop the role of the advanced clinical practitioner workforce in A&E.
Other commitments include increasing the physician associate training pipeline significantly over the next few years, with 3,200 qualifying in 2019 compared to around 350 now.
RCEM president Dr Taj Hassan said: “The additional resources are much needed and there are a large number of initiatives here which together will mean that emergency medicine can rebuild.”
Ms Cordery added: “It is good that this initiative addresses some of the key concerns around staffing in A&E, where many workers face intolerable pressures.
“A lot of NHS trusts have developed their own initiatives to support and develop staff in emergency care, to improve recruitment and retention,” she noted.