England has started its winter Covid-19 and flu vaccination campaign earlier than planned, aiming to prevent a potential “twindemic” that could strain the healthcare system. The program, initiated ahead of schedule, provides flu vaccines to everyone and Covid vaccines to eligible groups, including care home residents, over-65s, frontline health and social care workers, and those at clinical risk. This move comes as healthcare authorities seek to manage the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while monitoring new variants, such as the BA.2.86 variant.
Last winter, England faced significant hospital occupancy and “record pressure on staff” due to the combination of Covid and flu, prompting the early launch of this vaccination campaign. However, the decision to start early has been criticized for coming with short notice and potentially causing confusion among pharmacists and the public.
The BA.2.86 variant, which has multiple genetic differences from its predecessors, was linked to a high attack rate in an outbreak at a care home. As of September 4, 34 confirmed cases of BA.2.86 had been identified in England, mostly in the care home outbreak. Research indicates that this variant does not necessarily have a growth advantage over other variants in circulation, and there is insufficient evidence to link it to increased COVID-19 transmission or greater severity.
While concerns about new variants persist, healthcare authorities continue to adapt vaccination programs and monitor the efficacy of reformulated vaccines. The World Health Organization has been monitoring strains like EG.5 (Eris), which has shown growth and immune escape properties but no confirmed increase in severity.
In the UK, vaccines are available only through the state-owned National Health Service (NHS), in contrast to the US, where vaccine distribution is being shifted to the private sector.
Winter vaccination campaigns are also set to begin in other European nations this month as healthcare authorities worldwide remain vigilant in their efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and its variants.