How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity is a well-known quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. With the “levelling up” agenda being quoted widely by the UK government, and the effects of pre-existing health inequalities never more exposed than by the covid-19 pandemic, we all need to focus on the health of the most vulnerable in society. Our highest risk patients, and their household members, were rightly prioritised for covid-19 vaccination at the start of the rollout programme in December 2020.
Early in the pandemic, the UK government recognised that certain patients with complex medical conditions, or who were immuno-suppressed through disease or medication, would be most at risk from the complications of covid-19. These patients were advised to take careful infection control precautions, and were classed as clinically extremely vulnerable” (CEV). Among the advice given to them was to “shield” and to facilitate this, they were added to a “Shielding Patients List” (SPL) at their GP practices. Despite GP practices having robust disease registers and arranging seasonal flu vaccine recalls annually for mostly similar patients, NHS England decided to create centrally generated lists for CEV, and sent out letters to these patients.
Unfortunately, NHS Digital wrote to many patients who probably should not have been included as CEV (for example those with a history of glandular fever; or with long resolved and fully treated cancers in full remission), and also failed to include many patients who should have been classed as CEV. At the time, a survey by Pulse reported that after assessing the list of shielded patients provided by NHS England, on average practices had to remove 30 patients from the list, while adding 53 patients who had been missed off.
GP teams nationwide spent many hours scrutinising these lists, using their electronic notes, disease registers, and personal patient knowledge. The list of CEV patients needed to be as accurate as possible to try to ensure that the most vulnerable were protected, pending the arrival of covid-19 vaccines.
The importance of the accuracy of these lists cannot be overemphasised. These patients were offered extra support from the government, and local volunteers such as regular check-up calls from social prescribers at GP practices and both the patients and their household members were prioritised for vaccines. The social and mental health impact of shielding has also been noted in practice and widely reported. When the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) announced the hierarchy of priority groups for vaccination, there was much debate about how high up the priority list CEV patients should be, with many surprised that they were left to be sixth in line, with priority for vaccination largely being determined by factors such as residential setting, health and social care occupation, and age.
We are now offering covid-19 vaccine boosters for many people who are over six months after their second dose. The JCVI also announced on 1 September 2021 that certain patients aged 12 and over, who were immuno-suppressed (through disease or medication) around the time of their first two doses, should be offered a third primary dose after eight weeks from their second dose. Once again, as seems to be a recurring theme throughout the pandemic, this process has been poorly announced with the media reporting it before healthcare professionals were instructed about the process; and without a clear plan for implementing the programme.
Our most vulnerable and naturally anxious patients are confused about who should be recalling them for a third primary dose, whether or not they will be given a booster (in effect their fourth vaccine) six months later, and where to access their vaccines. Kidney Care UK for example has been deluged with enquiries from patients, many of whom have tried calling the national NHS 119 helpline to find that the staff there are often unaware of the process for arranging third primary doses. Although the JCVI wrote to specialists on 2 September 2021, it clearly takes time to review notes, run searches, and contact patients, with many patients now contacting their GP practices for support and advice. Furthermore, many of these immune-suppressed patients may receive their medication from hospital clinics, and thus might not easily show up on medication searches in their general practices.
To add further complications, the software used (called Pinnacle) to record covid-19 vaccines is not yet able to recognise a third primary dose, so they are currently being recorded as boosters, which is technically not correct. This will make any audits of vaccine uptake in this group extremely challenging, and may cause confusion in the future. In addition, patients are reporting that their third primary doses are not displayed correctly on their NHS app, presumably for the same reason. Once again, this highlights the need for joined up thinking before rolling out plans. It is worth noting that GPs add seasonal flu vaccines on our fully electronic patient records (which are later uploaded to Pinnacle), but the covid vaccines have to be added on Pinnacle only (which is later uploaded to GP-held electronic medical records and the NHS app). This is the reverse of what we would expect and is once again an example of NHS staff being forced to adapt to IT systems rather than the IT systems being designed to support NHS staff in their day-to-day work.
The government must look at how they communicate with both the public and professionals to ensure that our ongoing covid-19 vaccination programme is fit for purpose, and maintains the trust of the public to ensure high take up and prevent vaccine hesitancy. Unfortunately, after a promising start, the UK has slipped down the covid-19 vaccination league tables, and we are becoming an international covid-19 hotspot because of our high infection rates. The covid-19 vaccination programme has allowed us to come out of lockdown, and its ongoing success will depend on public confidence and effective messaging from the centre. As we enter the winter, with many other non covid-19 seasonal infections already in circulation, it is crucial that we try to protect our most vulnerable in society by making our vaccination programme as easy as possible for patients to access and navigate.
Simon Hodes, GP Partner Watford, Twitter: @DrSimonHodes
Azeem Majeed, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health, Department of Primary Care & Public Health, Imperial College London. Twitter @Azeem_Majeed
This article was first published in BMJ Opinion.