Flu vaccine shortages are causing appointments to be cancelled at the last minute in many parts of the country, The Telegraph can reveal.
Pharmacists said delays in the delivery of vaccines, combined with the highest uptake of jabs on record, meant some had been out of stock and that appointments had to be cancelled for for some weeks.
In other cases, pharmacies have been able to honour existing bookings but unable to open up new slots until supplies are replenished.
However, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said there were "no national supply issues with flu vaccines" and that it was "confident" of providing what was needed.
Last year saw record uptake of flu jabs in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
But pharmacies have already administered more vaccines in the first eight weeks of this year’s rollout than they did for the whole of last winter.
Global circulation of flu viruses 2021
Health officials have ordered central contingency stocks of vaccines, which were due to be released to areas in short supply early this month.
But those stocks have yet to be released, leaving some pharmacists waiting some weeks before they will be able to top up supplies.
Major flu vaccination effort
This year the NHS has embarked on the biggest flu vaccination drive in its history, with free vaccines offered to more than 35 million people – including all over-50s and millions of younger people with underlying health conditions.
The start of the rollout saw significant delays when the UK’s largest supplier of flu jabs, Seqirus, said it had been hit by “unforeseen challenges linked with road freight delays”.
Ministers said “a border issue” with the company’s Spanish factory had caused the problems.
Pharmacists said this delay, which pushed back appointments for several weeks, has had a knock-on effect as record numbers come forward.
Many cancellations in the last week relate to jabs for those under the age of 65, where Seqiris is the supplier.
Those eligible for NHS vaccines told how they had phoned round several pharmacists and GP practices, only to be told they would have to wait some weeks because of a “national shortage”.
Pharmacists said that any shortages were localised and should be resolved within weeks, while urging the Department of Health to release national stocks as soon as possible.
Peter Barron, former editor of the Northern Echo, received a text message last weekend to say his flu jab, scheduled in Darlington, had been cancelled due to a shortage of the vaccine for under-65s until mid-November.
Others in the North East of England said they had been given less than 24 hours’ notice that their appointment was being cancelled.
Pharmacies expecting more deliveries
A spokesman for NHS Tees Valley Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said: "Despite all of our GP practices planning well in advance for this year’s flu vaccination programme, many are now being forced to cancel appointments for the winter flu jab due to delays in vaccine delivery from the manufacturer.
“This is an issue which is affecting GP surgeries and pharmacies across the whole of the UK.”
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said pharmacies were having a “bumper flu vaccination season” with record demand.
He said: “Pharmacies and GPs were informed at the start of this season that some deliveries would be made a few weeks later than expected this year, and this has put some pressure on supply.
“For pharmacies, problems appear to be localised and temporary – our understanding is that most pharmacies either do have stock, or are expecting further deliveries soon.
“However, although stock is still arriving, much of it may already be allocated to people, so those without an appointment booked may need to wait a little while longer to receive their vaccination.
“The Department of Health and Social Care have arranged some contingency stocks which should be available this month. We hope they will be able to make these available to pharmacies as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for Seqirus said: “There are currently no issues with deliveries or the logistics chain and we have no regional variance to deliveries.
“To date, we have delivered 90 per cent of vaccines. The remainder will be delivered by the end of November.”
Stephen Fishwick, from the National Pharmacy Association, said the 3.4 million jabs administered in pharmacies in the first eight weeks of the programme is more than the total they dispensed last winter.
He said: “Pharmacies are currently experiencing a high level of demand, which is putting pressure on stock in some places, but most people are currently able to get a jab.
“Most pharmacies ordered their stock well ahead of the flu season. However, it often arrives in the pharmacy in batches and sometimes, even when the stock for the whole programme is sufficient supply, can fall behind current demand.”
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Most GP practices have received all their flu vaccine supplies to deliver this year’s programme, and are working hard to vaccinate eligible patients as quickly as possible.
“However, a small number will be receiving the rest of their flu vaccines by the end of this month, so if patients are experiencing any disruption, it should be temporary.
“GP practices plan meticulously each year to deliver the flu vaccination programme on a mass scale. With over 36 million people eligible for the flu vaccine on the NHS this year, GPs need the supply chain to run like clockwork.
“We urge all eligible groups to take up the offer of the vaccine as soon as they are invited.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “There are no national supply issues with flu vaccines. We have been working closely with flu vaccine manufacturers and are confident in their ability to deliver vaccines this season.
“Record numbers of people took up the offer of a free flu vaccine last year and the programme is expanding even further this year, with a record 35 million people in England eligible."