Scottish Borders Council leader demands answers of flu jab fiasco

Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam has demanded answers from the local NHS board after being inundated with comments from residents concerned about flu vaccinations.

By Joseph Anderson, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Wednesday, 30th September 2020, 9:27 am

Over the last two weeks, NHS Borders has sent letters out to those eligible for a flu jab, inviting them to book an appointment through the health board’s dedicated flu vaccination booking line.

However, angry Borderes 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.

Now, at a meeting of Scottish Borders Council on Friday September 25, council leader Shona Haslam quizzed the chief officer of the Scottish Borders Health and Social Care Integration Joint Board, Robert McCulloch-Graham, about the fiasco.

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Councillor Haslam, who represents Tweeddale East as well as being leader of the council’s ruling Tory/Independent administration, asked: “Over the last couple of days councillors have been contacted by numerous concerned residents about the availability of flu vaccines in the Borders, and the 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.

“Could councillors please have an update ensuring NHS Borders is ensuring the flu vaccine is as accessible as possible and that our most vulnerable communities do not have barriers to getting the vaccine, and how will this be communicated to the public?”

Robert McCulloch-Graham, said: “The target for vaccinations this year is extensive, 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 earlier this week, for the over 65s and some people who have underlying health problems, and we were inundated with calls.

“We received 60,000 calls over the last three days into 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, the chief executive has publicised an apology on this and is asking people to stagger the calls coming through – if they phone in and are not able to get through, then they’re being asked to not call back immediately and try again over the next few days 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 the 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.

“As far as communications are concerned, we’re relying on sending out letters nationally at the present time, and we will have some follow up communications going out for those people who may have been missed by the vaccination programme. The main communications for that will be press and radio and direct contact through letters.

“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, councillor 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 the under 65s can access the flu vaccine at their local practice but the 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 Mr McCulloch-Graham please 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 replied: “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 the GP.

“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.”

In a press release sent to local media earlier this week, Nicky Berry, director of nursing, midwifery, AHPs and acute services at NHS Borders, said: “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 on-going booking demand our booking line is open 12 hours a day, 7 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.”