With the publication of the first NHS vaccination strategy, Dr Farzana Hussain, a GP in Newham, East London, explains how the COVID-19 pandemic was a shining example of traditional service boundaries being broken down to provide improved access to life-saving vaccinations.
In most areas of the country, vaccination uptake is high. The NHS has a long-established programme providing tried and tested vaccinations to protect people against a range of potentially serious and life-threatening illnesses from childhood to later life.
And the COVID-19 vaccine programme was a monumental response to the pandemic – a fantastic example of the art of the possible with true collaboration between the NHS, local government and voluntary and community sectors.
Yet childhood vaccination uptake has steadily declined over the past 10 years and we have seen a resurgence in the threat of diseases like polio – a virus which can kill or leave people paralysed – which we previously hadn’t seen in this country for nearly 40 years thanks to vaccination.
And now with predictions of potentially thousands of measles cases in London, there has never been a better time to focus on the question of why this is happening when we have established ways to safely protect people. And importantly, what more can we do to ensure people are confident in the protection these vaccines offer and ensure convenient access isn’t a barrier.
As a GP and passionate advocate of ensuring our communities have access to vaccination, I believe it’s about taking our services to the people. This can be a combination of the standard routes we know like through GP practices, but why can’t we make providing vaccination through local malls, mosques, churches – to give a few examples – the norm?
There needs to be flexibility where we work around people and their busy lives – for example, busy parents could be offered the opportunity to ensure their children are vaccinated at school pick up vaccination sessions.
There is evidence of an evolving approach already when looking at the response to the threat of polio and measles in London with extra community clinics and vaccination programmes being set up in schools, in addition to vaccination through GP practices.
And building on examples like this, like we did throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, if we find people that aren’t coming forward, we need to find ways to make vaccination in their local areas even more accessible.
It’s vital that we break down any access barriers to ensure our communities are protected. In my own practice, for example, we have built excellent relationships with local primary schools and that coordinated community approach is where our strength lies.
I use these as possible examples and it of course needs to be tailored to what works in different communities, but again the COVID-19 vaccination programme showed us this is very possible and it’s in the best interest of all our communities.
To do this we also need to think about how we use our workforce more effectively and again, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us that we can train and use a whole range of staff to safely vaccinate as well as drawing on the skills of the voluntary sector.
By expanding the workforce and using it more flexibly so that senior clinicians can care for the most urgent cases, we can achieve the ambition of timely urgent care with good access to routine and preventative care. This goes further than vaccination though. Flexible use of the workforce is at the heart of a more holistic approach to wider public health.
It’s also about giving people options and I would love to see, in the not-too-distant future, a service where anyone can digitally book a vaccination appointment at a time that’s convenient for them and I’m pleased to see such a great emphasis on this in the vaccination strategy.
We need to break down any barriers to booking appointments and make things as easy and flexible as possible for example greater use of the NHS app and online booking. Again, we have seen this is possible with the COVID-19 and flu vaccine programmes, and there is no reason we can’t build on that for other vaccination areas.
Having worked through the pandemic to help protect my community, I’m pleased to see the publication of the NHS vaccination strategy and the emphasis it puts on convenient access. We need to build on the successful and established ways of offering vaccines, looking to what works and what else we can do to evolve and innovate for the protection of our communities and particularly our underserved groups.