Vaccination centres opened to children as NHS chief warns of ‘difficult winter’

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NHS England chief executive is worried about people not coming forward for booster shots  ( )
NHS England chief executive is worried about people not coming forward for booster shots ( )

NHS vaccination centres will be opened up to children during half-term the head of NHS England has announced, as she also warned not enough older people were coming forward for boosters.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, told MPs there would be a “big push” to get 12 to 15-year-olds vaccinated “to make the most of half-term” with families able to book jabs via the online national booking service.

Giving evidence to the Commons health select committee Ms Pritchard stressed the NHS was facing “a very difficult winter” adding it was vital people did not delay coming forward for their third doses.

She told MPs there was “plenty of capacity” for booster jabs and the NHS was sending out another 1.8 million invites this week to anyone eligible for a booster who was one week beyond six months since their second jab.

She said: “There is no delay in sending out invitations. Within days of people becoming eligible they will get their invitation. What we are seeing is that whilst it’s great people are coming forward for their boosters, they are not coming forward as quickly when they receive their invitation as we saw for the first jabs.

“It is really important that we now absolutely do get the message out that Covid is still with us, it is serious; boosters really do make a difference in boosting immunity. If people get their invitations there is plenty of capacity so please come forward and book as soon as possible.”

Her comments come as The Independent reported almost five million people have yet to get their booster jabs, sparking warnings from experts as the NHS approaches winter.

Ms Pritchard told MPs: “We need to recognise we are in for a difficult winter. We do have 5,900 people with Covid in our beds at the moment and that number is going up.

“There is an inevitable interplay when we are talking about inpatient beds. If we have Covid patients in our beds the obviously that has an impact on how many elective [routine] patients can be in those same beds.”

NHS England’s medical director Professor Steve Powis added the nearly 6,000 Covid patients would not normally be in those beds and on top of that other beds had been lost in order to “ringfence” the Covid patients to prevent infection spreading.

Under questioning from health committee chair Jeremy Hunt, Ms Pritchard appeared to accept there was a shortage of 999 call handlers after what she said had been a “significant increase in demand.”

Mr Hunt, a former health secretary, referenced people experiencing 10 minute delays in having 999 calls answered – a situation reported by The Independent in July at the height of the summer crisis faced by the NHS which led to the military being called in to help ambulance trusts.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, health secretary Sajid Javid acknowledged there were shortages across the NHS including call handling, and said: “There is huge pressure on 111 calls as well, and emergency care generally, including ambulance services."

Royal Preston Hospital in Lancashire declared an internal incident over demand from ambulances and “significant shortages of staff” on Tuesday. The Independent reported on Monday that patients were waiting almost 50 hours for a bed in the overcrowded A&E department.

The Health Committee has launched an investigation into the NHS response to the record 5.7 million patient backlog since the pandemic but under questioning by MPs, Ms Pritchard appeared unable to confirm how many additional staff would be needed to ensure NHS England could deliver on its promise to increase activity by 30 per cent, in response to the extra £10 billion it would get from April.

Chair Jeremy Hunt asked Ms Pritchard to write to the committee setting out the estimated workforce need the NHS had.

Workforce remains the key determinant in how much activity they NHS will deliver and Ms Pritchard said she was focused on supporting existing staff while also recruiting staff from overseas. She revealed that so far this year 12,000 new clinical staff had been recruited from overseas, as well as 14,000 healthcare support workers.

Professor Powis told MPs the NHS did need more doctors and that it was “absolutely critical” the budget for Health Education England, which trains doctors, nurses and other staff, had enough funding to meet the need.

Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said that the government believed it was important initially to use school settings for 12-15 vaccinations, in order to “answer legitimate questions that parents and children might have”, but that it had now been decided to open the national booking service for this age-group.

He denied that Tuesday’s announcement meant that the school-based roll-out had failed.

“Using the school approach was important in order to use the tried and tested route routes through school to build up consent and to answer, legitimate questions parents and children might have,” said the spokesperson.

“There are a number of challenges to vaccinating 12-15 year-olds at scale and at pace. We have a plan in place to deal with all of them, whether it’s misinformation from those anti-vaxx campaigners, or – more legitimately – those parents and children who have questions that we need to provide clear answers to.

“Part of that will be through direct communications with schools, with parents with children, as well as the sort of national top-down messaging that you will see.”

The PM told cabinet on Tuesda that the government’s Covid winter strategy was keeping the virus “under control” and that death rates and hospital admissions remain “broadly flat.”

Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister stressed that our autumn and winter plan continues to keep the virus under control and that case rates and hospital admissions remain broadly flat.

“He re-emphasised that we must put all our energies into our vaccination programmes and set out that the booster vaccination programme continues at pace, with over 3.7 million people having received their third jab.

“The Prime Minister ended the meeting by stating that although we face a difficult winter we have a plan in place to steer the country through this period and people should continue to follow the guidance and get their jabs when called upon.”

A new TV and radio advertising campaign will launch on Friday reminding those eligible for booster jabs to book an appointment.

Despite high infection rates, the spokesperson said that the UK’s vaccination programme had “substantially weakened the link between case rates and hospitalisations and deaths”, allowing Britain to be “one of the most open societies in Europe” by lifting lockdown restrictions.

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