Virgin Care Services delay puts thousands of Devon children at risk from flu this winter – letter to the editor

Dear West Country Bylines, 

At a time when Devon parents were expecting to receive consent forms for their children to receive the nasal flu vaccine in schools this Autumn term, we have instead received a letter from Virgin Care informing us that the flu vaccine schedule has been significantly delayed and our children will not be offered the vaccine until 31st January 2022 – some 10 weeks away and well past the peak of this year’s flu season. 

The delay isn’t because there’s a shortage of the vaccine to give, it’s because Devon Child Health Services are privatised/outsourced to Virgin Care Services Ltd., which is not adequately resourcing its team and service provision in order to meet the vaccine schedule. 

Paediatricians and GPs we have consulted have said it’s completely ridiculous for children to have to wait until the very end of January, when many flu cases will already have hit our school and community. 

Brilliant NHS school nursing teams around the country have been delivering the flu vaccine to primary school children since September – in spite of their resources already being stretched. Virgin Care are resourcing their teams inadequately and have chosen to deprioritise primary school children from the programme.  Find us a case where the nasal flu vaccine schedule has been delayed in primary schools that have the programme led by NHS employed school nursing teams…..we don’t believe there is one.

Throughout all our communications with Virgin Care, they have shirked responsibility for delivery of the flu vaccine programme, instead placing blame with NHS England for agreeing to the delays, rather than reflect on what Virgin Care themselves can do to adequately resource the vaccine programme.

On the government’s own website (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/flu-vaccination-in-schools/flu-vaccination-programme-2021-to-2022-briefing-for-schools ,the answer to the FAQ ‘When does the vaccine need to be given?’ is that vaccinations are to be given in the Autumn term, before flu tends to circulate.Virgin Care have told us that their team vaccinated 127,000 children over a 12-week period last year. This year, they have either not started early enough to be able to conclude vaccines in the Autumn term or are not resourcing their teams adequately – or a combination of both.   From our own primary research, we are aware of many Devon primary schools, as well as in Bath, Somerset and Wilts who are experiencing significant delays to the vaccine programme, with some children having to wait until February in some cases. 

There are fears that this year’s flu season will peak earlier, coupled with immunity being lower as a result of the 2020/21 lockdowns. The current situation is unacceptable, compromises the health of our children, teaching/school staff and the wider school community and will encourage transmission in our towns and villages. 

Primary school children in the South-West will absolutely be in the minority if they are not offered the flu vaccine before the Christmas holidays. Virgin Care claim that they will have 65% of first visits made in December. There are 100,000 primary school children in Devon alone, add in other impacted areas in the South-West and we have a situation where tens of thousands of children are left waiting. 

Virgin Care have been awarded more than £2bn of NHS contracts in the last 5 years and are embedding themselves in our local health, care and community structures. This year it may just be Devon, Bath, Somerset & Wilts primary school children who are impacted. Next year and the years after, if NHS Health Services are further privatised to independent providers such as Virgin Care and Serco Health, it will impact many other areas of the UK.

It’s another screaming example of why public services should not be privatised to companies like Virgin Care who are clearly placing profit over people.

Virgin Care still have four weeks left in which to deliver the vaccine programme in the Autumn Term. From the start, our one ask has been that they resource the vaccine programme appropriately, and act with pace to remedy the situation. 

With England’s Covid case rates highest in schoolchildren aged 5 to 9, (a group that have already missed out on so much school education and fun as a result of the pandemic), this year of all years they should not be deprioritised in this way. We simply want our children to be given the same level of priority regarding the flu vaccine programme as every other person. Virgin Care? Just about their profits and further NHS takeover, I suspect.

Rachel Stretch

Seaton


The Health and Social Care Bill, which opens the doors to the NHS wide to private health providers passed its final stage in the House of Commons. Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Rachel’s constituency, voted for this egregious bill. Ed