Flu vaccination programme to be expanded The flu vaccination programme in Northern Ireland is being expanded to help protect vulnerable people and relieve winter pressures during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The vaccination programme officially begins on 1 October 2020 however it is likely that deliveries of the vaccine will arrive from the end of August enabling the programme to commence in September once GPs have received their initial orders. Health Minister Robin Swann said: "Given there is currently no vaccine to combat COVID-19 it is extremely important that we take all necessary measures to help reduce the risk of the flu circulating alongside COVID-19 during autumn and winter. “I have asked my Department to increase the availability of the flu vaccine this year to additional groups of people in an effort to reduce health risks in individuals and reduce the pressure on our health and social care system.” The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, said: “Flu can present with similar symptoms to COVID-19 and therefore has the potential to complicate the contact tracing and surveillance programme. There is also emerging evidence that co-infection with COVID-19 and flu may lead to a more severe illness. Reducing the pressure caused by seasonal flu will help preserve the capacity of the health and social care system to manage any future waves of COVID-19.” The current groups eligible for a free flu vaccination are everyone aged 65 and over, pregnant women, those aged under 65 years of age in clinical “at risk” groups, all children aged 2 to 4, all primary school pupils, and frontline health and social care workers. Additional vaccine has been secured which will allow for the following groups to receive a free flu vaccination during the 2020/21 flu vaccination programme: Household contacts of those who received shielding letters during the COVID-19 pandemic can request vaccination via their GP; Staff in independent care homes; and School children in year 8 i.e. those who will be in the first year of secondary school from September 2020. Subject to vaccine availability, the programme may be extended by December to include those in the 50-64 year old age group, starting with the oldest first. This extension will be phased to allow GP practices to prioritise those in a clinical at risk group. Minister Swann added: “Everyone who is eligible for a free flu vaccine should take this opportunity and help protect themselves and those around them this winter.” The vaccine will be available through the schools programme, from GPs, and through Trust vaccination schemes for staff.