All Borderers eligible for flu jabs will get them, pledge health chiefs after further concerns raised over booking line bungle

Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam has added her voice to the chorus of concern sparked by the mishap-hit launch of this winter’s flu vaccination programme in the region.

By Joseph Anderson, Local Democracy Reporter
Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 5:35 pm
Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP Rachael Hamilton at the Borders General Hospital at Melrose.
Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP Rachael Hamilton at the Borders General Hospital at Melrose.

Over recent weeks, NHS Borders has been sending letters out to those eligible for flu jabs inviting them to book appointments via a dedicated telephone line only to realise belatedly that it didn’t have the capacity to cope with the tens of thousands of calls being encouraged.

Many of the 50,000-plus Borderers now eligible for free injections – half the population of the region – have reported waiting several days on hold after phoning the booking phone line, with others saying they haven’t been able to get through at all.

At a full meeting of the council held via video-link last Friday, September 25, Mrs Haslam asked Robert McCulloch-Graham, chief officer of the region’s health and social care integration joint board how NHS Borders bosses had failed so badly to anticipate the level of demand for the jabs.

The Tweeddale East councillor told him: “Over the last couple of days, councillors have been contacted by numerous concerned residents about the availability of flu vaccines in the Borders and requirements to travel in order to access the centres administering the vaccines.

“We’ve also received reports of individuals being unable to get through to the phone line to book an appointment.

“The elderly population are very concerned about having to travel on public transport in order to access these centres.”

Mr McCulloch-Graham replied: “The target for vaccinations this year is extensive as the government has extended the number of people who have access to the vaccine.

“Our target here in the Borders is 56,800.

“Letters were sent out to some of the population, for the over 65s and some people who have underlying health problems, and we were inundated with calls.

“We received 60,000 calls over three days to the call centre, and we’ve also received 40,000-plus emails.

“We were not expecting such a high response and we were swamped basically.

“We’re trying to address this now, and we will get through all of those people who are putting in for appointments.

“We’ve gone for an appointments system so that the centres’ opening won’t be inundated with long queues.

“We’re opening up 19 centres across the Borders, and by doing that, we hope to tackle any of the travel issues people are talking about in order to minimise travel time.

“For those people who are housebound or are shielding, we will be using district nurses who will be able to come and distribute the vaccines in their homes.

“The numbers we’re talking about are unprecedented, and this is a major operation for the NHS and for the partnership to make sure we have the maximum number of people receiving the flu vaccination this year.

“It’s a major priority. The NHS board has mobilised significant numbers of staff to create the team that’s going to deliver the vaccine in communities. They’re also pulling in people to work in the call centre.”

As a follow-up question, Mrs Haslam asked: “Given the letters went out and the press campaign has begun, I remain slightly perplexed as to why the NHS was surprised by the number of people getting in touch.

“I also remain confused why under-65s can access the flu vaccine at their local practice but over-65s have to travel, often on public transport. This to me seems back to front.

“I’m also very concerned about how the elderly are going to travel to these appointments. Can I please get clarity on that?

“You also seem to be penalised if you don’t have access to email and have to rely on phoning in to make an appointment.

“Can you speak to NHS Borders highlighting our concerns and make sure there are no barriers in place to the elderly accessing this lifesaving vaccine?”

Mr McCulloch-Graham answered: “With regards to the under-65s, the only under-65s who’ve been written to so far are those with underlying health problems and they’ve been referred to their GPs.

“This year we’ve opened it to 50 to 65-year-olds, and they’ll be contacted later. We’re staggering that so they will be further down the line.

“I will take the comments back to the NHS and through to the executive.”

Nicky Berry, director of nursing, midwifery and acute services at NHS Borders, has offered an assurance that everyone eligible wanting a flu jab will get one, saying: “The flu vaccination programme is very different this year in light of Covid-19 and the increased eligibility, which means that around half of the Borders population are eligible for the free flu vaccination.

“We have a team of people answering calls and responding to emails, and due to the efforts and flexibility of our hard working staff we have booked appointments for 6,000 people in our first week.

“I would like to thank our dedicated staff, who have worked tirelessly in order to achieve this.

“To address the ongoing booking demand, our booking line is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and I ask that if you cannot immediately get through to the vaccination booking team that you do not immediately redial but that you ring again at a later time or on a different day.

“If you have emailed us, please wait until a member of our team contacts you. Please do not re-email us.

“There is plenty of time to book, and everyone who is eligible will receive their vaccination over the next few months.”

Borders MSP Rachael Hamilton has also voiced concerns about the chaotic launch of the vaccination programme and she’s raised the issue with Scottish Government health secretary Jeane Freeman.

“My inbox was full of constituents emailing me themselves or on behalf of loved ones last week, expressing their anger and frustration at the difficulty in obtaining a winter flu jab appointment,” said the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP.

“In these difficult times with Covid-19, there must be 100% confidence in the rollout of winter flu vaccinations, given the season is starting.

“The new delivery model for winter flu jabs has meant my constituents are now being expected to travel to receive the vaccine rather than having it administered in their local GP practices.

“This is causing much confusion and upset, especially as people are reluctant to travel on public transport or share a car.

“We urgently need more resources to help NHS Borders cope with telephone calls and allocating appointments.”

Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP John Lamont added: “It is reassuring to hear that there has been a big increase in appetite for this year’s vaccination, which is good news for people’s health but is obviously causing difficulties in the booking system.

“Knowing that the normal vaccination process was not going to be suitable this year, the Scottish Government should have put in place more support to help NHS boards deal with the logistical issues.

“NHS Borders have reassured me that they are working at pace and that everyone who wants a vaccine will get one.”