PHARMACIES in Oxfordshire are preparing for the ‘most challenging’ flu vaccination season ever in an effort to ease pressure on the NHS this winter.

Eligibility for free flu jabs, which are also offered by GP, has been expanded this year to protect more vulnerable groups and prevent an influx of ill patients coinciding with any second wave of coronavirus.

The chief medical officer Chris Whitty has asked health professionals for a ‘concerted effort’ to achieve at least 75 per cent uptake across all eligible groups, as well as 100 per cent of frontline health and social care workers.

David Dean, chief officer of Thames Valley Local Pharmaceutical Committee, said flu season 2020 was ‘almost like a dress rehearsal’ for a coronavirus vaccine.

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He was speaking in a webinar to pharmacists across the region as they prepared to tackle the unique challenges this year and the role pharmacists can play.

Across the Thames Valley 3,800 patients have already received a free NHS vaccination from community pharmacists in the first week of September.

Initially priority is being given to people in high-risk groups and those aged 65 years or over.

Those in the former group will be a particular target as Public Health England figures show just 48.5 per cent of clinically at risk people in the county had the vaccine last flu season.

The Government has said eligibility will also be expanded to those aged 50 and over later in the season, with a date still to be confirmed by NHS England but expected to be in November or December.

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Already offered to all primary school children, free vaccinations are also being extended to children in the first year of secondary school.

Other at risk groups included for free vaccinations include those shielding, people with conditions such as diabetes and asthma, as well as pregnant women and toddlers.

Last year, approximately 15 million people in England were vaccinated as part of the NHS campaign, far fewer than the 25 million who were invited to have it.

This year more than 30m doses have been ordered.

Dr Meenu Paul from Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group said: “Every year the flu virus kills people and hospitalises many more. This year, we are hoping that more people than ever will get vaccinated against flu. GPs will be taking extra precautions in practices to make sure that these will be delivered as safely as possible in a covid-secure way.

“Catching the flu can have serious complications for some people so it is more important than ever for us to get vaccinated. The flu vaccine is the best protection for you and those around you. Ask your GP or pharmacist if you’re eligible for a free flu vaccination.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said the UK already had some of the best flu vaccine uptake rates in Europe, but this winter 'more than ever' it is vital everybody eligible gets their flu vaccine to protect themselves and support the NHS and social care.