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A winter flu epidemic could put tremendous pressure on the NHS and other care providers, but what if the carers themselves are struck down by flu?

That’s the worrying scenario which NHS leaders are striving to prevent in a new initiative to boost flu vaccination rates among both public and private care givers.

NHS England is working together with Public Health England, the Department of Health and NHS Improvement to roll out the new anti-flu measures and protect frontline services this winter. The package of contingency measures includes:

  • Providing free flu vaccines for hundreds of thousands of care home staff at a cost of up to £10 million, as well as increasing the number of vaccinations for young children in schools and vulnerable people
  • Directing NHS trusts to ensure they make vaccines readily available to staff and record why those who opt out of the programme choose to do so
  • Writing to doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers reminding them of their professional duty to protect patients by being vaccinated themselves
  • Setting up a new National Emergency Pressure Panel to provide independent clinical advice on system risk and an appropriate regional and national response
  • The biggest expansion in training for A&E consultants ever, involving hundreds more doctors and other healthcare staff over the next four years.

Many people with flu show no symptoms, so healthcare workers who feel fit and healthy can unwittingly infect vulnerable patients. Getting vaccinated is the best way to stop the spread of flu and prevent deaths. It can also ease pressures that a heavy flu outbreak would place on services such as doctors’ surgeries and busy hospital wards.

NHS staff are already offered the vaccination for free to protect patients and the public. This winter, in recognition of how important this is, NHS England will extend free jabs to up to more than one million care home workers and has set aside £10 million to fund it.

At the same time, health chiefs will direct all trusts to ramp up programmes to ensure that nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals get the flu jab – protecting themselves and their patients this winter. Although last year saw record take up, more than one in three NHS staff did not have a flu jab, with just one in five being vaccinated in some NHS Trusts.

NHS England’s national 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.”

Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies added: “The harsh reality is that flu can kill and the best way to protect yourself is to get the jab. With more people eligible than ever before and the vaccine available in more locations, people should protect themselves and those around them from flu. Taking a few minutes to get the jab could save your life this winter.”

The more people who are vaccinated against flu, the less likely it is that any outbreak will spread and become an epidemic. Even a younger and fit person should have the vaccination if they are routinely in contact with people who would be more vulnerable to the effects of the virus. A free annual vaccination is already offered to anyone aged 65, pregnant women, and people with underlying health conditions which make them more vulnerable to the effects of flu. Schoolchildren up the Year 4 are also offered the free vaccine in the form of a nasal spray.

Having the vaccine isn’t a 100% guarantee against catching flu, but it does offer good protection and even if you do contract the virus its effects should be shorter-lived and less pronounced if you’ve had the vaccine. Even if you don’t qualify for a free flu jab on the NHS, many local pharmacies offer it for a nominal charge, usually around £10 to £15.

For more NHS advice about the flu jab, who should have it and why, click here.

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