Old pandemic flu vaccines may plug shortfall, PM says
The government is considering using leftover vaccine from the swine flu pandemic to plug the shortfall in jabs this winter, the prime minister says.
David Cameron said the Department of Health was "working hard" to tackle the problem after reports that some areas have run out of the flu vaccine.
The government confirmed on Wednesday there were "local supply" issues, but denied there was a national shortfall.
It has also asked suppliers to see if there were spare vaccines in Europe.
But it is thought that there are only about 100,000 doses at most and so using the pandemic vaccine that was left over - there are millions of doses stockpiled - could provide the solution.
The vaccine is different from the jab being offered this year, but as swine flu is the dominant strain in circulation it could offer some protection.
Mr Cameron said: "There is a national stock of flu vaccine from the pandemic of 2009 and while that vaccine is slightly different... it does have some of the common characteristics.
"So one of the urgent discussions at the Department of Health right now is to work out whether that vaccine would be useful.
"We are working hard to make sure we get this right," he said.
Flu vaccines - like many others - are ordered directly by GPs. They estimate how many they need based on uptake in previous years.
More than 14 million doses have already been delivered to GPs in the UK this winter.
Until early December there seemed to be plenty in the system as immunisation uptake was lower than in previous years.
However, doctors have reported an increase in interest in the flu jab following media coverage of an outbreak and this has been followed this week with reports of doctors running out.
Readers of the BBC website have e-mailed in to say they have experienced problems getting vaccinated, while Dr Rosemary Leonard, a GP who appears on TV, has run into difficulties at her practice in south London.
She said: "There is a problem now with the vaccine supply. At the beginning of December there was loads and loads of vaccine. Now there has been a rush on the vaccine and my surgery ran out."
But shadow health secretary John Healey said: "This action is better late than never but will only add to the confusion over the government's handling of the swine flu outbreak.
"The health secretary has been slow to act at every stage and now his department is playing catch up."
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) urged GPs to continue efforts to offer vaccinations to all at-risk patients.
There are thought to be no more than 100,000 doses still available in Europe licensed for UK use.
Additional doses with foreign language labels are obtainable but would require new packaging and special approval before they could be used.
The latest figures on the flu outbreak will be released on Thursday afternoon alongside data on the vaccine shortage.
By the end of last week, 39 people had died and more than 700 were in critical care.