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A Perfect Storm: Operation Booster Hits Already Under-Pressure NHS

Healthcare staff are expressing concerns at being able to offer all adults the Coronavirus booster jab by 2022

People queue for their Coronavirus booster jab in London in December 2021. Photo: Amer Ghazzal/Alamy

A Perfect StormOperation COVID Booster Hits Already Under-Pressure NHS

Healthcare staff are expressing concerns at being able to offer all adults the Coronavirus booster jab by 2022

GPs and NHS staff were taken by surprise by the Prime Minister announcement to offer all adults a Coronavirus booster vaccine by 31 December – with various surgeries informing patients not to rearrange existing vaccine appointments as “current clinics are full and we will not be able to offer alternatives at this time”.

The announcement, screened to the nation on Sunday night, launched what Boris Johnson called “operation emergency boost”. “I said we would offer every eligible adult a booster by the end of January,” Johnson said. “In light of this Omicron emergency, I am bringing that target forward by a whole month.”

The plan is to roll-out the booster jab in order to tackle the wave of Omicron, the Coronavirus variant that is spreading rapidly through the country and which is set to become the dominant strain of the virus.

This means, Johnson continued, that “everyone eligible aged 18 and over in England will have the chance to get their booster before the New Year”.

It has since been clarified by the Department of Health and Social Care that adults will be “offered” the booster vaccine by the end of the year, but they may not receive the jab until 2022. 

In the wake of the announcement, members of the public with booster vaccines already booked for 2022 received text messages from their GP surgeries explaining “we have just heard the Government’s announcement” and that they would be “reviewing their capacity to bring COVID-19 vaccines forward”. This suggests that the reviewed target was as much news to NHS staff as it was to the general public. 

On social media, people shared messages from GP surgeries explaining that they had not received advance notice of the announcement and that they are “trying to organise the logistics of any additional vaccines as soon as possible”.


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A Lack of Forward Planning

Medical staff believe that they should have had longer to prepare for the booster roll-out, with GPs already facing staffing pressures and low morale. 

Speaking to BBC News, Dr Nighat Arif said her “heart sank” when she heard the revised target as it wasn’t clear how the NHS would deliver “the rest of medicine as well as a huge vaccination programme”.

A GP based in Yorkshire shared how “we’ve already ramped up our capacity in light of the ask which went out a couple of weeks ago, so we’re struggling to think where can the extra capacity come from and are beginning to think ‘well how are we going to do this’”.

These concerns echo similar pressures from last year, when NHS staff were tasked with treating Coronavirus patients during the deadly winter wave, while delivering the mass vaccine programme which has since saved countless lives. 

Speaking anonymously to Byline Times earlier this year, one GP explained how one of the many pressures she and her colleagues had faced was the vaccine programme “because we didn’t have enough staff. Our nurses were running the surgery and the vaccine centre, our GPs were working in the surgery and running the vaccine centre”.

She added how “we were promised the army but we never saw them. My working day starts at 5am and goes on until midnight”.

The NHS website to book booster jabs is facing huge demand as people flock online to arrange an appointment, while long queues have formed outside of walk-in centres from people eager to get vaccinated before Christmas.

At the same time, supplies of lateral flow tests – which are available for free from local pharmacies or for home delivery– have run low, with the Government website stating that “there are no rapid lateral flow tests available today for home delivery”. For people with Coronavirus symptoms, there are currently no PCR tests available to book in England, adding to concerns about capacity to manage the new phase of this crisis.

Announcement on Government website saying there are no rapid lateral flow tests available for home delivery, 14 December

The concerns about capacity to deliver the vaccines do not cast doubt on the urgency and the importance that everyone receives the jab as soon as possible to help stop the spread of Coronavirus. 

Existing Pressures 

During his address, Boris Johnson explained that his plan would “mean some other appointments will need to be postponed until the New Year” to mitigate any delays to treatment down the road, he explained, adding that “the wave of Omicron could be so big that cancellations and disruptions, like the loss of cancer appointments, would be even greater next year”.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid has asked that GPs focus on “urgent appointments and jabs only”.

On social media, people shared text messages from their surgeries reflecting this messaging – although these tweets are not verified. 

While ensuring that everyone has the booster vaccine is understandably a priority to reduce infection, hospitalisation and deaths from another wave of Coronavirus, the change in emphasis will put more pressure on a health service already struggling with demand. 

According to a snapshot survey conducted by Pulse Magazine, GP waiting times have reduced since before the pandemic, with 65% of respondents saying that patients who booked a non-urgent telephone or online consultation were on average waiting less than a week to see their GP. In 2019, patients were often having to wait more than two weeks for an appointment. 

But the Government has recently taken aim at GPs’ use of phone consultations – with Javid demanding surgeries offer more face-to-face appointments. He proposed naming and shaming surgeries that see “too few” patients in person – an intervention opposed by the British Medical Association’s GP committee. 

Outside of GP surgeries, waiting lists across the NHS have reached an all-time high, with 5.8 million patients waiting for routine surgery by the end of September 2021.

The British Medical Association reported that the overall median waiting time for treatment increased to 12 weeks in October 2021, as did the total number of patients waiting over 18 weeks for treatment, at 2.05 million. The number of patients waiting over one year for treatment increased to reach 312,665.

Meanwhile, the UK faces a shortage of GPs – with the Government admitting it is “not on course” to meet its manifesto pledge to recruit 6,000 additional GPs by 2025. There are now just 0.45 fully qualified GPs per 1,000 patients in England. This is because there are fewer GPs and more patients – the number of fully-qualified GPs has decreased by 1,744 since 2015, while in contrast, each surgery has nearly 2,000 more patients on average than six years ago.

The shortage is creating a bottleneck, with patients struggling to access primary care, which can then lead to delayed diagnoses, causing greater stress further down the health service. It also means those people living with a diagnosis feel they have to manage without GP support as they wait for surgery or ongoing treatment. 

While the Government is clear that delays now will mean fewer delays and cancellations later on, the concern is that the NHS is facing a perfect storm of long waiting lists, staff shortages and a vaccine roll-out that one doctor speaking to ITV Central said has not been “well thought out”.

To book your booster jab, you can visit the NHS website

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