Last year saw the largest roll-out of the influenza vaccination programme to ensure that as many eligible people as possible were vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to the highest level of vaccination ever achieved for over 65s and for frontline workers. As a result of the high levels of vaccination and transmission-based precautions, which were in place on a national and global scale during the pandemic, such as social distancing, mask wearing and isolation of people with COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms, there was a significant reduction of circulating Influenza through the 2020/2021 winter period. Now that social distancing measures have been relaxed and social contact and mixing is returning to normal levels, it is expected that this winter will be the first where seasonal Influenza and COVID-19 will both be circulating, along with other respiratory viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The mathematical modelling suggests that this season could see a 50% rise in Influenza cases and could begin earlier than previous influenza seasons (Public Health England (PHE), 2021a).
The World Health Organization cites vaccination as the most effective public health intervention in the world, after clean water. By protecting ourselves with the vaccines, we reduce the risk of transmission to our patients, our families and our colleagues, and reduce the risk of disruptions to health and social care services, which is particularly important when the pressure, which is already on all frontline services, is severe before we are in the throes of winter.
The COVID-19 booster doses were discussed at the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) where it was agreed on 14 September 2021 that frontline health workers will be among those groups of people who are offered a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as a booster. These will need to be administered 6 months after the second vaccine. The JVCI has indicated that the booster vaccine can be given at the same time as the Influenza vaccine, although having the vaccines in different arms is preferable (PHE, 2021b). However, it is noted that co-administration and synergistic approach to support uptake on the same day is not always possible and we would encourage people not to delay getting their seasonal influenza vaccination.
The Influenza vaccine would still be the best protection against an unpredictable virus and has a good safety record—this should be combined with the lessons that we have learned during the pandemic, in relation to not mixing with others when we have symptoms of respiratory viruses, social distancing, mask wearing and hand hygiene. We would recommend that all staff should be vaccinated, unless clinically exempt, to protect themselves, their patients, their families, and their colleagues.