UK may face a winter flu crisis because of Brexit drug delays

UK may face a winter flu crisis because of ‘triple whammy’ of Brexit delaying vaccine deliveries, a busy summer for the NHS and a deadly strain of the virus coming from Australia, medics warn

  • The Royal College of Physicians said there would ‘likely’ not be enough vaccines
  • Jabs have already been delayed by a World Health Organization issue in spring
  • A strain which has triggered one of Australia’s worst ever outbreaks is on its way 

The UK may face a flu crisis this winter because it’s likely to run out of vaccines in the event of a no-deal Brexit, senior doctors have warned.

Hospitals say the NHS is coming out of a difficult summer and the country will be hit by a ‘particularly virulent’ strain of the virus coming from Australia.

The ‘triple whammy’ of threats could put lives at risk with the elderly, young and chronically ill in danger of suffering serious complications of the flu.

More than 26,000 deaths in England were linked to the flu in the 2017/18 season, up from 18,000 in 2016/17 and 12,000 in 2015/16.

And the Royal College of Physicians said a vaccine shortage could leave some people unprotected this year and put extra strain on the NHS.

The president of the Royal College of Physicians said it would be untrue to say no-one will run out of medicines in the event of no-deal Brexit (stock image)

The RCP’s president, Andrew Goddard, told BBC Newsnight: ‘I can’t sit here and say “don’t worry, no deal will be fine, no one is going to come to any harm, no one is going to run out of medicines”.

‘What we can see is we’re likely to not have enough flu vaccine.

‘We are likely not to have the flu vaccine coverage that we’ve had in previous years, and that is likely to have an impact on the NHS.’

No-deal Brexit became more likely this week after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to shut down Parliament for most of September and October.

This gives politicians who want to avoid crashing out of the EU a window of just a few weeks to try and stop it happening before October 31.

Experts and medical unions have repeatedly warned that a no-deal Brexit could ‘devastate’ the NHS by interrupting supplies and leaving staff from abroad ‘in limbo’.

Flu is a common viral illness which causes fever, muscle aches, tiredness and a cough and sore throat, and adds to pressures on hospitals in the winter.

Although most people get over the illness in a week or two, vulnerable people are at risk of developing potentially deadly complications such as pneumonia.


Doctors and nurses could be made to wear labels warning patients if they haven’t had the flu vaccine, England’s Chief Medical Officer suggested in June.

Dame Sally Davies, speaking to a Parliamentary committee, said health workers ‘owe it’ to patients to get vaccinated every winter.

She said it would be difficult to force staff to have the jabs but added that, in future, it could be written into the job contracts of people working in NHS hospitals. 

The flu vaccine is offered for free to all children, elderly people, pregnant women and those with long-term medical conditions – as well as NHS employees.

But uptake among frontline healthcare workers is contentious. In last year’s flu season 70.3 per cent of NHS staff had the jab, according to Public Health England.

Although this is double the figure in 2010 (34.7 per cent), there may still be tens of thousands of unvaccinated health workers.

Dame Sally said: ‘I feel very strongly that we have a duty of care. I go and get vaccinated because I go out to the front line.’

When asked whether staff should have a choice about having the flu vaccine or not, she said: ‘The patients don’t have a choice. They’re in the hospital, we’re looking after them. We owe it to them.’  

The elderly, young children and people with long-term or serious illnesses such as cancer are more likely to be seriously affected.

And a strain circulating this year in Australia has triggered one of the country’s worst flu seasons in history and killed three times as many people as last year.

Earlier this year there was a delay to the World Health Organization’s decision on how to make this year’s vaccine, which means it won’t be available until later than usual.

Drugs manufacturer Sanofi UK also said it would expect problems delivering the flu jab if there was no Brexit deal.

Hugo Fry, Sanofi’s managing director, told the BBC that the WHO’s delay meant more than a million doses of the vaccine would still need to be imported into the country after October 31 – Mr Johnson’s self-imposed Brexit deadline.

He explained: ‘In the world of vaccines you get shortages more often than you do in medicines, for example, because of the complexity.

‘Therefore imagine a world where it is difficult to get things into a country and there’s a shortage of a particular vaccine – that’s when you want to rush it into the country in case there’s a shortfall.

‘Rushing things into a country in a period post no-deal Brexit might be a bit difficult, for example.

‘I didn’t bring my crystal ball with me, but what we’re doing is planning for what we think will be the worst-case scenario.’

The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers agreed there could be problems, and thinks doctors are ‘facing a triple whammy’ this year.

Providers’ Saffron Cordery said: ‘We’re coming out of the summer, which has been a really tricky summer for the NHS. We are also facing a particularly virulent strain of flu coming from Australia.’

The Department of Health added: ‘We are working closely with vaccine suppliers to ensure they have robust contingencies in place.

‘We want to reassure our patients that our plans should ensure that supplies of vaccines remain uninterrupted when we leave the EU on October 31, whatever the circumstances.’

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