Exclusive: ‘Super-vax’ letters will be rewritten by NHS after sparking panic among pensioners
Hundreds of thousands of NHS letters inviting elderly people to giant vaccination centres will undergo an emergency rewrite after sparking panic among pensioners, The Telegraph understands.
More than 130,000 letters already sent to over-80s were criticised by MPs and council leaders on Monday after failing to make clear that anyone who preferred not to travel to a super-centre could still receive the vaccine at a later date via their GP.
The messages caused distress to elderly and vulnerable people who believed they would miss out on a vaccination unless they travelled up to 40 miles from their homes.
"People were on the phone to me over the weekend in tears," said Shaun Davies, the leader of Telford and Wrekin council.
On Monday night, a senior NHS source said 500,000 more letters due to be sent this week would be reworded to make it clear that people unable to make the journey would still be offered a jab by their family doctor.
"They will be redone before going out to make the message much clearer," the source said.
The original letters, seen by The Telegraph, told pensioners: "You are able to book your free NHS coronavirus vaccine now" and provided a link to an NHS website allowing them to book at their nearest super-centre.
Only later do they add: "You may also be contacted by your local NHS services. If you have, you can choose to either book your vaccination appointments through your local NHS services or using the details in this letter."
The original letters were sent to 130,000 people aged 80 or above who live around 30 to 45 minutes drive away from one of the seven new centres.
Current vaccine coverage in England
In Shropshire, the letters invited pensioners to receive their jabs at super-centres in Birmingham and as far away as Manchester.
Pamela Harvey, an 83-year-old retired secretary, received a letter over the weekend advising her to book a vaccination at the Millennium Centre in central Birmingham, 34 miles away from her Telford home. It sent her into "self-destruct mode," her son told The Telegraph.
"My mother is 83 and she’s extremely vulnerable. She’s had a heart attack and a stroke and arthritis, so she finds it difficult to get around,” said Tony Clayton.
"She hasn’t got the internet, so she couldn’t sign up online. Then she tried calling the 119 number but couldn’t get through.
"She couldn’t possibly get to Birmingham on her own. If she tried, she’d get lost. And if I drive her, then we’re both putting ourselves at risk.
"The most ridiculous thing is that some GPs in Telford are giving out the vaccine, but when she called her own surgery they didn’t have any, and they said she should maybe change doctors. The whole thing is a complete mess."
One senior GP suggested the letters may allow the Government to claim it has "offered" vaccines without actually delivering them.
However, sources at the Department of Health said the letters would not count towards the February target unless people successfully booked appointments at the super-centres. Letters sent by GP surgeries inviting people for appointments will be counted towards the target, however.
Mr Davies said: “A lot of these letters were going to people in their 80s and 90s with significant health issues, many with dementia who were completely confused by this coming out of the blue.
“People thought this was their only opportunity. People were on the phone to me over the weekend in tears, thinking that they just couldn’t get to Manchester. It has been a shambolic episode.”
Local NHS chiefs said they had been blindsided by the letters, suggesting they had been “confusing” for elderly and vulnerable people.
Dave Evans, chief officer at the Telford and Wrekin Clinical Commissioning Group, told the BBC: “We did not know the letters were coming out, which was probably not as helpful as could have been. It was sent out centrally from NHS England. I think we could have taken a more proactive approach to try and allay some of the anxieties.
“To be fair, the letters aren’t as clear as they could have been. It wasn’t entirely clear that you could wait for local vaccination to take place. I’m sorry that has caused concern.”
In St Helens, GPs were forced to issue a statement reassuring anxious pensioners who were worried they had missed their chance for a jab.
“Please don’t worry if you are struggling to get through on the phone or have gone online and find that the sites on offer are too far to travel to,” the doctors said.
Kay Hayward, from Whitwick in Leicestershire, said she went online to book an appointment for her 85-year-old husband Kenneth and was offered five different places including Widnes in Cheshire and Stevenage in Hertfordshire.
"I thought they must be joking… we talked about it and we thought it was actually safer to stay here and for him not not have it.
"But we were worried if we turned this down, we’d be off the list… the letter doesn’t say anything about having the vaccines anywhere else locally."
Downing Street said that the over 80s invited to mass vaccination centres can wait for closer appointments in the future if they prefer.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: "Those who receive the letter do not have to take one of those appointments if it is too far to travel and can wait for a local appointment if they would prefer."
On Monday, his spokesman was pressed on whether the 10-mile target is to be achieved by February after it was suggested some people have been told to travel 20 miles.
"The PM was clear that as we ramp up that is what we will aim to ensure but we’re opening the first seven mass vaccination centres this week with more expected to be up and running by the end of the month and the Prime Minister has been clear that’s our desire to try and ensure people don’t have to travel too far for a vaccine," the spokesman said.