Groups eligible to receive the vaccine will now include people aged 50–64 years, households of those on the shielded patient list, and children in the first year of secondary school.
Inclusion of these new groups will see the list of eligible patients increase by more than 15 million, to cover almost half the UK population.
GPs have been calling for clarity on the expansion of the vaccination programme after NHS England indicated in May that additional cohorts could be included for 2020/21 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are fears that a challenging flu season could place unsustainable pressure on the NHS if it coincides with a second peak of COVID-19 infections.
GP leaders welcomed the 'sensible' plans but said they would 'present challenges' - and called for more detail on how the programme will operate.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall told GPonline: 'This announcement of an extension to the flu programme is sensible as we prepare the NHS for a busy winter and potential second wave of COVID-19, but GPs and our teams, who will be delivering the majority of vaccinations, need more detail about the practicalities of how it will work.'
According to the DHSC, vaccinations for patients aged 50-64 will be rolled out 'once vaccination of the most at-risk groups is well underway' - with the government promising to 'work with clinicians to decide' when the rollout to this group should go ahead. Patients in this group will be contacted directly 'including information about where to go to get the vaccine', the DHSC said.
GP leaders also called for assurances from the government that enough doses of the vaccine would be available.
Professor Marshall said: 'Practices plan meticulously for the flu season every year to ensure the vaccination programme runs smoothly and as many people as possible get vaccinated – they will have made their orders at the beginning of the year and will need to amend these. We also need assurance that the government can guarantee adequate supply for everyone covered under the extension.
'It is likely that COVID-19 will present challenges to delivering the flu programme – we will need to take measures to ensure all patients are safe when they come to get their vaccination, and we will need to ensure people, particularly in at risk groups, are confident in doing so. If a COVID-19 vaccination is available for use then this will also need to be factored in. The college has developed guidance for GP practices to support them to deliver mass vaccination programmes efficiently and safely, whilst COVID-19 remains a threat.'
GPs have already expressed concern that vaccinations will take much longer to administer in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
RCGP guidance published last week warned that flu vaccinations could take more than twice as long to deliver because of the need for social distancing and changing of personal protective equipment (PPE).
In the 2019/20 flu season, around 15.3 million vaccinations were administered to eligible groups, covering patients over 65, those in clinical at-risk groups, pregnant women, children aged 2 to 3 years, primary school children and healthcare workers.
NHS England is predicting increased uptake this year among groups previously eligible for flu jabs because of health fears triggered by the pandemic - and has said it expects 'universal' uptake among healthcare staff.