Ministers cut NHS Covid jabs ad budget by 63% despite winter wave fears
Exclusive: Government accused of complacency as funding to promote Covid and flu vaccines reduced to £4m
Funding to promote the uptake of NHS England’s autumn Covid and flu jabs has been slashed by 63%, it can be revealed, even as the World Health Organization warned of a wave of winter deaths.
The government’s “lifesaving autumn booster rollout” started on Monday, but ministers have cut the £11m budget earmarked for advertising to £4m, it is understood.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not dispute the figures but said the government was seeking alternative ways to work with charities, industry and retailers to promote the vaccinations.
The development has prompted claims of government complacency and highlights the financial pressures facing the NHS amid increasing waiting times for elective surgery and cancer care.
The new health secretary, Thérèse Coffey, who Liz Truss has also given the role of deputy prime minister, said on Wednesday that a priority for her was ensuring that people could find GP appointments.
Truss has said she will scrap the national insurance increase that was due to provide additional funding for the NHS, but Coffey insisted that the shortfall would nevertheless be met.
“Instead of having, in effect, a ringfenced levy, we will be funding that out of general taxation, so the investment going into health and social care will stay exactly the same,” Coffey said.
Around 26 million people across England are eligible for an autumn booster jab, including over-50s, those with a weakened immune system, health and social care workers, care home residents and housebound people.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said in July that “winter remains the season when the threat from Covid-19 is greatest” and that a wave of influenza infections was also to be expected.
Invitations to take up Covid jabs are due to land on doormats from this week but the reduction in funding for the TV, radio and social media campaigns this autumn has caused concern among officials in Whitehall.
The WHO has warned that Europe is facing a new wave of Covid infection similar to the scale of last autumn. The European Commission has even suggested that travel restrictions could be imposed again as it appealed to EU member states to increase uptake of the Covid vaccines.
In July, the House of Commons public accounts committee reported that almost 3 million people in England were yet to receive a single Covid shot while a further 1.5 million had had only one dose.
Uptake has been particularly low among pregnant women, with just 58% having received two doses by February this year. People of black, black British and Pakistani heritage were less than half as likely as those of white British origin to have had booster shots.
The committee had called for new approaches to tackle “the persistent low uptake observed in some ethnic groups”.
Labour’s Wes Streeting, the shadow health and social care secretary, said: “Vaccines are the best way of protecting people from falling ill and preventing the NHS from falling over this winter. The government should be encouraging everyone eligible to come forward and protect themselves.
“The government should bring back the ‘jabs army’ of volunteers who helped roll out the vaccine during the pandemic, to help take the pressure off the already overstretched health service.”
A spokesperson for the DHSC said the government could increase “activity” depending on the level of uptake over the coming weeks.
She said: “We are committed to ensuring the right plans are in place for flu and Covid vaccines.
“We are providing additional funding for vaccinations to ensure more people get their jabs, with all those over 50 being offered them for both Covid and flu – and we urge all those eligible to come forward for their vaccination.
“We are also using a number of different and targeted routes to actively promote the vaccine. This includes paid-for advertising and partnerships with charities and industry to reach our target audiences, as well as text message reminders for NHS app users, alongside the annual flu vaccination campaign.
“We will continue to keep vaccine uptake under review and increase activity if and when needed.”