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Opinion: Pay pharmacy what it deserves for flu jabs

When you compare the fee community pharmacy is being paid for administering flu vaccinations with the infamous ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, you can’t help but wonder whether the Government has got its priorities right, argues Nigel Chivers

One thing that has become as predictable as Christmas is the annual flu season. The severity of the outbreak may be difficult to foresee, but we know it will happen.

A bad flu season will create mortality figures approaching Covid-19 levels, although that is seldom headline news and passes off without troubling most of the population or crashing the economy. This year, of course, is different.

The imminent prospect of a second wave of Covid-19 playing out over the flu season is causing health planners to sweat. No one knows how these viruses will impact each other. Might patients capable of surviving either flu or Covid succumb if they catch both? Could the NHS bear the strain of two viral outbreaks at one time?

Of course, we can vaccinate against flu, but not Covid-19, so it makes sense for the Government to allocate appropriate funding to ensure that the impact of flu is as limited as possible as it rolls out its most extensive vaccination programme ever.

The Government’s response to this opportunity to make a life-saving and significant impact on health was... £10.08. It was without any sense of irony or disappointment that PSNC reported that this £10.08 (generously up from £9.58 in 2019/20) was to be the flu vaccine service fee to be paid to community pharmacists for their role in limiting the impending health crisis.

But there is more... contractors can also claim £200 to cover the cost of venue hire but who is going to be working in the pharmacy while pharmacy teams administer flu jabs in the village hall? Locums, perhaps – but who pays for them?

Popular and growing service

Flu jab administration in community pharmacy has been growing quickly over the last five years. According to NHS Business Services Authority figures quoted on the PSNC website, in 2015/16 there were 595,467 vaccines administered under the NHS Flu Vaccination Service. That has grown every year and in 2019/2020 reached 1,718,147.

Now, in round terms, 1.7 million flu jabs at £9.58 cost the Government £16.3m. Good value, I would argue, for protecting 1.7 million folk from flu and limiting the impact on the NHS.

If growth continues along similar lines we could see around 1.95 million community pharmacy administered vaccinations in 2020/21: even at £10.08, that is a mere £19.7m. It could have been so much better if the Government wasn’t so wedded to short-term populist policies.

Wrong priorities

Of all the measures introduced by Rishi Sunak, surely one of the least impressive was the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. The Times reported that this obesity-driving programme was so popular amongst the public that it cost upwards of £522m (at least £22m over budget).

I don’t begrudge this short-term support for the hard-pressed hospitality sector but if just 5 per cent of that budget was allocated to flu vaccination services, that would have been another £26.1m. What level of service could pharmacy have delivered, and how many people could have been vaccinated, had the scheme been appropriately funded and with sufficient supplies made available throughout?

One should not be surprised. This Government’s contempt for pharmacy has been writ large many times but ministers should remember that while GPs’ response to Covid-19 was to lock the door and skulk in their surgeries, community pharmacy kept on meeting patients’ needs, always accessible, even under great pressure and in the face, sometimes, of shocking hostility.

Pharmacy is the service that can deliver community vaccinations at scale. The Government would be wise to remember this, not only for this year’s flu season but for when a Covid-19 vaccine eventually appears. Will it take the opportunity to make sure such programmes are properly funded?

Nigel Chivers is a director of Communications International Group, publisher of Pharmacy Magazine.

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