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The government today told the Independent that pharmaceutical companies have been free for some time to offer private vaccines and that it will not stand in the way, provided they meet the NHS quota.
Experts have warned that the new Covid wave could add to autumn and winter pressures on the NHS if it continues to spread, following a rise in cases with the recent emergence of the new Eris variant.
However, no company currently offers private Covid vaccines that can be purchased – for example at private hospitals and pharmacies.
Virologist Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, said the issue of private access to vaccines is “fraught with difficulties, particularly in relation to equity of access.”
Speaking to The Independent, he added: “Having said that, we accept every year that those who are not at high risk of serious complications can access a private flu jab so why should the covid jab be any different?
“With the threat of new Covid variants and waning immunity in most of the population, we need to do everything we can to prevent the spread of the virus during the winter period.
“It makes sense for the Covid booster vaccine to be more widely available so that people can choose to pay if they want but there should be some way of subsidising the cost to ensure that everybody has access.
“Private flu jabs cost between £16 to £20. The fear is that as the mRNA vaccines will be much more expensive – around £100.
“They will be unaffordable for many people particularly those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged who we know are most vulnerable to the severe effects of Covid.”
The government’s autumn booster programme this year is available to people aged 65 and over, as well as younger vulnerable groups, compared to the previous age limit of 50
Professor Adam Finn, of the University of Bristol, also believes Covid vaccines should be commercially available and said employers might want to offer the jab to staff too.
The expert, who is also a member of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the Guardian: “I think it will be a good idea for vaccines to be made available to those that want them on the private market.
“I don’t really see any reason why that shouldn’t be happening.”
The latest data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows an increase in Covid cases in England from late July.
Infections and positivity rates, recorded through hospital testing, rose as well as hospitalisations which increased to 1.97 per 100,000 people compared to 1.47 the previous week.
Meanwhile, less people are eligible for the government’s autumn booster programme which will be made available to people aged 65 and over, as well as younger vulnerable groups, compared to the previous age limit of 50.
Some pharmacists and private clinics have expressed interest in offering Covid vaccines for sale on the high street to the tens of millions of people no longer eligible on the NHS
Some pharmacists and private clinics have expressed interest in offering Covid vaccines for sale on the high street to the tens of millions of people no longer eligible on the NHS.
But while they are not prohibited from doing so, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), there is currently no such service available.
Prof Young said: “The decision to axe free covid boosters for the 12 million people aged 50 to 64 is very short-sighted.
“It will inevitably result in more infections requiring treatment as well as people having to take time off from work.”
The sale of Covid vaccines could be offered in the same way as the sale of other private healthcare jabs, such as for seasonal flu.
But the government said getting such products to market is a matter for manufactuers and private healthcare providers to agree on.
Recent reports claimed pharmaceutical companies were suggeseting Covid jabs are still connected to government contracts.
There are currently no Covid vaccines available to purchase privately in the UK
The UKHSA today told The Independent that while this is true, in that manufacturers are expected to deliver enough vaccines for its NHS programme, it will not stand in the way of any additional production.
So long as there are enough vaccines available for its NHS programme, it said companies are free to decide for themselves whether to produce more vaccines for the private market.
Philippa Harvey, Director of the Covid Vaccine Unit at UKHSA, said: “The Covid-19 vaccine is not currently available to buy privately in the UK but there is no blanket restriction on private sales of licensed vaccines.”
She further commented: “The Covid-19 vaccination programme continues to target those at higher risk of serious illness in line with JCVI advice, as those groups are most likely to benefit from booster vaccination at this time.
“UKHSA will continue to work with manufacturers to ensure there is sufficient vaccine supply available to the NHS programme.”
The government said it has contracts with Covid-19 suppliers to deliver vaccines for NHS campaigns and to provide contingency, but that there is no blanket restriction on private sales of licenced vaccines.
Manufacturers would need to agree with private healthcare providers any future sale of vaccines to ensure providers can deliver these effectively and in line with clinical guidance, it explained.
It further reassured that contracts are in place to facilitate the delivery of the NHS Covid-19 booster programme this autumn.