All children will be offered flu jabs this autumn – amid fears Britain could be facing one of the worst seasons on record.
The rollout will be extended to everyone under the age of 16, as well as all over 50s, and millions of others with common health conditions, The Telegraph can reveal.
It means the programme will be the biggest in history, covering more than half the population.
Sources close to the programme said it would be expanded this year, to cover all pupils at secondary school.
Until now, jabs have only been offered to under fives, primary school pupils, and those in the first year of secondary school.
But scientists have warned that Britain could face a severe flu epidemic this winter, because lockdowns and social distancing mean the population has less immunity.
There is particular concern about children, with repeated school closures and self-isolation meaning they have had less exposure to everyday bugs.
Flu deaths are now ten times higher than Covid deaths
One source said: “We are worried we are in for a really bad flu season this year, so we are looking to expand the programme again, and to include all secondary school children, for the first time.”
Another said: “The orders went in some time ago, there is major concern about flu; much more worry about the impact of flu on children than there is about Covid on them.”
Infants and children can act as “superspreaders,” meaning they are vaccinated not just to protect them but also to prevent spread of the virus in other groups.
Last year the flu vaccine programme was the biggest on record, with jabs offered to 30 million people, including everyone over the age of 50, and almost 10 million children aged 11 and under.
This year the programme will be expanded further, to add in around four million children aged from year seven to year 11, with instructions due to be issued by the Department of Health within weeks.
Officials are also concerned about how to boost take-up in younger groups.
Global circulation of flu viruses
Last winter, 81 per cent of people aged 65 and over had a flu jab. But just 22 per cent of children under the age of two got a jab, along with just 49 per cent of other eligible children.
Children are at extra risk this year, because they have built up less immunity to flu, as a result of lockdowns and social distancing last winter, scientists have warned.
The Government had made preparations to roll out Covid vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 17 after adults are vaccinated.
But the idea has met growing reluctance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which is expected to make a formal recommendation later this summer.
Professor Anthony Harnden, the JCVI deputy chairman, told The Telegraph the flu jab programme would be more crucial this year than ever, in protecting children and the wider population.
He said: “With flu vaccines and children there is a mixture of both direct and indirect benefits.
“Children can get really sick from flu, and we are at risk of a particularly bad flu season this year, so there is a really strong reason to protect them directly.
“Children are also one of the main transmitters of flu within the wider population, so that is an additional reason to vaccinate them; it also protects everyone, especially the most vulnerable.”
Proportion of children out of school in England for covid-related reasons
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Record numbers of people took up the offer of a flu vaccine in 2020/21 and the Government is getting ready for the upcoming flu season to ensure the health service can provide as many vaccines to people as possible to ensure they are protected.
“Further details of the winter flu vaccination programme will be set out in due course.”
On Thursday, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said Britain could not afford to delay reopening, saying the lack of immunity built up against flu meant this winter carried particular risks.
Mr Javid said ministers were “very aware” of the low levels of natural protection built up against flu this year, because of repeated lockdowns.
The minister told an online conference of the Local Government Association: “If you don’t start opening up now, when? Because opening up now, going into the summer, all the public health officials that we have, the scientists, our epidemiologists are saying that it’s much better to open up going into the summer… than just waiting to do it in the winter.”
“We know we’re going to have winter pressures,” he said. “This year what we’ve got to be very aware of is that with flu… we have a much lower level of immunity that we normally have because there basically was hardly any flu last year, because of all the controls we had in place.”
He said the lack of flu in the southern hemisphere, which normally gives scientists the model for its vaccines, meant there was less confidence in this year’s jabs.
“So we do need to start opening up, we feel very comfortable with the plans we set out, despite the rise we’re going to see in infections,” he said, warning that he expected to see daily cases keep rising into August. “It’s the vaccine that’s working and that’s what gives us the confidence,” he said.