The head of the NHS in England has said it “would be great” if the coronavirus and flu jabs were combined into a single vaccine for future winters.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said offering the COVID-19 and flu vaccines together could happen in the future.
He told MPs on Tuesday that COVID-19 could become a “much more treatable disease” in the next six to 18 months.
He said the emergence of new coronavirus treatments in the second half of this year offer hope of a “much more normal future”.
On Monday, the government said it was “confident” in the supply of jabs despite a threat from the EU to block vaccine exports.
Speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee, Sir Simon said: “It would be great if the COVID vaccine and flu vaccine ends up being combined into a single vaccine, which we might see if not this winter but future winters as well.”
More than 6.5 million people in the UK have had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with more than 470,000 having had a second jab, according to the government.
It plans to offer a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine to 15 million people by the middle of February.
Sir Simon said three-quarters of jabs have so far been delivered through local vaccination centres led by primary care services.
“The first half of the year, vaccination is going to be crucial,” he said.
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“I think a lot of us in the health service are increasingly hopeful that the second half of the year and beyond we will also see more therapeutics and more treatments for coronavirus.
“I think it is possible that over the course of the next six to 18 months, coronavirus becomes a much more treatable disease with antivirals and other therapies, which alongside the vaccination programme holds out the hope of a return to a much more normal future.”
Sir Simon also told the committee that vaccines were being used as fast as they arrived in the NHS, and more than half of those aged 75 to 79 have now had their first doses.
“We are at the moment pretty much using up each week’s vaccine as we get it, as we receive it through the safety testing, the batch testing, distribution to the NHS, then it gets sent out across the country,” he said.
He said teachers, police and people with learning disabilities will need to be considered for the next round of COVID-19 vaccinations, suggesting this should happen as early as February.
Sir Simon said reducing the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients was not “the only consideration” the government would take into account when deciding the vaccination priority list.
“Fundamentally, the most important thing is to get the overall infection rate down, this is not principally about pressure on the NHS, this is principally about reducing the avoidable death rate,” he added.
Vaccinating everyone aged 65 and over will have a “big impact” on the pressure on hospital beds, Sir Simon said, but added that about a quarter of hospital admissions for COVID-19 are for people aged under 55, and about half of inpatient critical care bed days for coronavirus relate to patients under the age of 65.
Sir Simon said just under 33,000 COVID-19 patients are currently in hospitals across the country, which was “very, very serious”.
He added: “When you look at the critical care positions, again, we have got over 4,000 patients in critical care and about three-quarters of our critical care are there for COVID-related reasons.”
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