They hope a dramatic cut in the number of people who catch flu will avoid any danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed. It will also reduce the number of people with flu symptoms who would otherwise need to be tested for coronavirus, which can present in a similar way.
Starting in September, the most vulnerable groups, including the over-65s, pregnant women, at-risk toddlers, healthcare workers and people who are in the “shielding” category for Covid and members of their household, will be invited to receive their free flu jabs.
Over the following weeks the over-50s will be contacted, and health workers will visit schools to vaccinate all children at primary school and the first year of secondary school.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said it was “mission critical” that everything was done to get the population ready for winter and said everyone who is offered a vaccine should get one “not just to protect yourself but to protect the NHS”.
Government sources said officials had been building up stockpiles of flu jabs for months, but had not until now drawn attention to the fact in case it prompted other nations to follow suit and led to a shortage.
Health officials are also urging NHS workers and care workers to do their “professional duty” and have the jab, amid concerns that too few have taken up the offer in previous years.
There are also fears that the growing “anti-vax” movement could affect take-up. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, emphasised last night that flu can kill and the vaccine is a life-saver.
He said: “Flu can have serious consequences and vulnerable people can die of it. Having the vaccine protects you, and helps reduce transmission to others.