COVID-19 has been an undoubted tragedy and has impacted us all in unimaginable ways. And yet, we have also seen it bring about the best in humanity. Despite everything the last year has brought, as lockdown lifts and a sense of normality returns, many will want to examine our health system and consider whether lessons can be learned.
We have seen ingenuity and innovation on a scale rarely seen, with public and private sectors – scientists, medical professionals and politicians – working together in new ways, all in the pursuit of a common mission.
The pandemic has also once again demonstrated the power of immunisation as a public health intervention. In a post-pandemic world, it is absolutely vital that this momentum is not wasted.
The theme of this year's World Immunization Week was ‘vaccines bring us closer’. The World Health Organization used the opportunity to call for greater engagement globally on the wider health and well-being benefits that immunisation can bring, with the aim of increasing uptake of vaccines and encouraging investment to help remove barriers to access. It’s clear why the World Health Organization chose this theme, and it feels like the week held more significance this year than ever before.
While the week provided an opportunity to reflect on all that has been achieved over the last year as far as efforts towards tackling the pandemic go, it also acted as a reminder to look forward and consider how focusing on prevention could help us better manage public health.
A key part of this is understanding the value of vaccination across the life course. The UK continues to see high child vaccination rates and we should be rightly proud of our world-leading immunisation programme for children. And, while more must be done to improve adult uptake of vaccines, last year’s decision to expand eligibility for the winter flu vaccination programme via the NHS was a significant moment.
But while good progress has been made, there are still many barriers to uptake, including lack of access, misinformation, complacency, and other health inequalities. This needs to change.
Ageing populations put increasing pressure on health systems, and life-course vaccination is a clear example of where a greater emphasis on prevention could significantly improve both our nation’s health and our nation’s economic prosperity. Over 70s are eligible for vaccination against shingles, but by the age of 76 around 1 in 4 are still unvaccinated.1 Just 1 in 8 of 65-year-olds were immunised against pneumococcal disease in England between April 2019 and March 2020.2 Protecting our most vulnerable from these diseases and keeping them out of hospital is not just the right thing to do, it will relieve the burden on the NHS too.
We must take action and ensure that the vaccines we have access to in the UK today do more to protect us throughout our lives, from childhood through to old age. Much has been learned from the pandemic about how we manage our health, and about the value of vaccination – now is the time for the UK to lock in these learnings, as we start to prepare for another winter where there will be acute additional pressure on the NHS.
During the pandemic we’ve seen the very best of what science and collaboration can achieve. We think that establishing a national leadership forum for vaccination, as has been created for cardiovascular disease, could help us to make the most of the potential benefits of vaccination across the entire UK population. The forum should be responsible for ensuring closer collaboration between the NHS, industry and Government, and work to close the gap between research and development of new vaccines and their uptake.
We must also harness the power of data more effectively to encourage vaccination uptake. NHS England should consider investing in a national, enhanced life course ‘Immunisation Information System’. This individual record of vaccination over a person’s lifespan would be available digitally, potentially through the NHS app, to improve an individual’s access to their health data. Essentially, it would be an extension of the highly effective “red book” for childhood vaccinations.
Ultimately, these changes won’t be effective unless we combat the growth in misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. We need to work collectively to support people in making their own choices and managing their own health. Milestones like World Immunization Week are important in helping to raise public awareness of the value of vaccinations throughout our lives.
With a renewed focus on keeping people well - not just making them better – we believe that we can support more people to live as they want, contribute to a more sustainable NHS and build a healthier and more resilient future for Britain.
- Public Health England. Cumulative shingles vaccine coverage report to end of June 2020 (quarter 4) and annual 2019 to 2020 coverage: England Accessed Nov 2021.
- Public Health England. Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPV) coverage report, England, April 2019 to March 2020 Accessed Nov 2021.
PP-PFE-GBR-4184 / November 2021