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Flu programme extended to help protect more people this winter

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As autumn approaches in the coming months, now is the time to start thinking about getting the annual flu jab. This year, however, the free jab will be offered to more people amidst concerns around the still-present coronavirus.

The NHS flu programme in England typically offers the flu vaccine to those over the age of 65, pregnant women and those with existing health conditions or weakened immune systems. These groups will remain a high priority this year, while the programme will also be extended to reach out to more people.

In a typical winter, flu is one of the biggest health concerns for many older and vulnerable people. With the additional threat of coronavirus this year, the public are being advised to take extra care to avoid both of these diseases. The government hopes for as many people as possible to receive the flu jab to reduce the risk of caregivers and healthcare workers coming under immense pressure.

It is estimated that approximately 30 million people – roughly half the population of the country – will be eligible for a free flu jab ahead of winter. This includes anyone over 50 and children in the first year of secondary school, as well as those who have been shielding and their families.

Why is the flu programme being extended?

Each year, it’s not entirely certain how big of a flu season we can expect. However, the healthcare services remain determined to keep the spread of flu to an absolute minimum. That’s never been more important than this year as the country recovers from the significant impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Whilst none of us can predict the future, concerns have been raised over a potential second wave of Covid-19 cases in the winter. This is because viruses that affect the respiratory system – like the flu – tend to thrive in colder months.

The peak of the coronavirus pandemic may have passed, but the virus and the disease itself have not completely gone away. To make matters worse, it’s possible to have both the flu and Covid-19 at the same time as they are two different viruses. If a double infection occurs, it could be extremely serious for anyone affected.

We don’t yet have a preventative vaccine for coronavirus. By giving more people the flu jab this winter, this should reduce the risk of hospitals becoming overwhelmed by a combination of flu and Covid-19 patients. Additionally, social distancing and increased hygiene measures remain in place for the foreseeable future to combat coronavirus transmission. It’s also hoped that continuing these practices will reduce the amount of flu going around.

Who will be eligible for the jab?

In addition to those who would normally be offered the flu jab, people who have been shielding from coronavirus will be amongst the first to be contacted by the NHS, alongside any family members they live with. People with some medical conditions – like diabetes, asthma and heart problems – will also be able to receive the vaccine for free, along with health and social care workers.

Following those groups, flu jabs or nasal sprays will be rolled out to children in primary school and the first year of secondary school. The programme will then be extended to those between the ages of 50-64 for the first time, with full details of timescales to be announced in the coming months.

The vaccine will also be available privately for adults not eligible for an NHS jab. This is expected to be available in most pharmacies for around £20. The prime minister has expressed his hopes for “everyone to have a flu jab in the run up to this winter.” The more people who are immunised, the less likely it is that a flu epidemic will overwhelm the NHS at such a trying time.

For more information on the flu vaccine, nasal spray and the flu programme for 2020, you can visit the NHS website here.