GP practices are being offered extra money for each COVID-19 jab they administer as NHS England brings forward its autumn booster programme.
A vaccination drive for over-65s and vulnerable groups was set for October, but will now start on 11 September, in a bid to tackle the new BA.2.86 variant, nicknamed Pirola.
The strain has had researchers on alert over its high number of mutations, and has been described by NHS officials as the "most concerning new variant since Omicron first emerged".
While BA.2.86 is not being treated as an official "variant of concern", and little is known about the symptoms it produces, the UK Health Security Agency has determined the most appropriate step "is to vaccinate all those eligible, quickly".
With a list of eligible people invited to get their boosters next month, the health service is now offering GP practices additional money to help them with the upcoming drive.
How much will GPs be paid for delivering COVID-19 jabs?
In addition to the £7.54 they could already claim for each vaccination, practices will now be offered an additional £5 for each jab given to patients.
Vaccines for care homes residents, or those who are otherwise housebound, already carry a payment of £10, but practices will now receive an additional £10 for each one given between 11 September and 22 October.
Meanwhile a one-off completion payment of £200 will be given for each fully vaccinated care home, a letter sent yesterday to NHS staff says.
The additional £5 on offer brings payments back up to the original fee level of the vaccine programme, the British Medical Association (BMA) told Yahoo News.
Earlier this month, the BMA criticised a "short-sighted" move by NHS England to cut the fee by 25%, which has since been withdrawn.
Read more: Covid Vaccines Are Being Restricted This Winter – Even Though Virus Has 'Not Gone Away' (HuffPost)
Doctors demand 'adequate financial support beyond October'
The BMA welcomed NHS England's announcement after its lobbying for increasing funding for GP practices, saying it would help them "deliver as many boosters as possible".
Dr Samira Anane, deputy chair of GPC England at the BMA, cautioned that the increased payments are only available until the end of October.
“At which point the base fee returns to the much lower rate, that made so many practices question if they could provide the COVID vaccines at all this year," she said.
Watch: Autumn vaccination drive brought forward in bid to tackle highly-infectious BA.2.86 strain
“This programme comes as an incredibly demanding piece of work, which will have an impact across general practice, generating significant workload as a result.
"The restrictions on not being able to use enhanced access services to help vaccinate patients presents an additional barrier to helping protect our patients and will mean workforce will be stretched beyond capacity.”
With "pressures" on health services having "worsened in recent years", Dr Anane has urged NHS England to provide "adequate financial support beyond the end of October" to ensure practices across the country can keep meeting demand for boosters.
When asked about this demand by Yahoo News, NHS England referred to data released today showing how GPs earnings have increased in recent years – up 20% on pre-pandemic levels.
Read more: Are you eligible for a COVID jab this year? (Yahoo News UK)
Why is the government calling on people to get booster shots?
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was always planning to offer boosters for vulnerable groups ahead of winter, when respiratory viruses are typically at their peak.
However, the drive was brought forward as a precautionary measure after the BA.2.86 was detected in the UK on Friday 18 August.
According to the latest risk assessment by UKHSA, Pirola has a high number of mutations and has appeared in several countries in individuals without travel history – suggesting some level of local transmission.
While BA.2.86 is not currently classified as a variant of concern, advice from UKHSA suggests that speeding up the autumn vaccine programme will deliver greater protection, supporting those at greatest risk of severe illness and reducing the potential impact on the NHS.
The decision means those most at risk from winter illness - including people in care homes for older people, the clinically vulnerable, those aged 65 and over, health and social care staff, and carers – will be able to access a COVID vaccine in September.
Read more: COVID 'Pirola': What we know as scientists track 'highly mutated' variant (Yahoo News UK)
The annual flu vaccine will also be made available to these groups at the same time wherever possible, to ensure they are protected ahead of winter, the DHSC says.
NHS England will announce full details of the accelerated roll-out soon, and those who fall into higher-risk groups are being encouraged to take up the jab as soon as they’re invited.
How much have COVID-19 cases risen in the UK?
According to the Zoe Health Study, an estimated 1,089,579 people in the UK are now thought to have symptomatic COVID-19.
The project, led by researchers at King's College London, said there were 85,321 new symptomatic cases recorded on Tuesday, 29 August - based on PCR and LFT test data.
However the true number is likely to be higher, as many people who are not sharing their data with the study could also have had symptomatic COVID without reporting it.
A steady rise in the UK comes as cases increase across the globe, and COVID related hospitalisations have also been increasing in recent months.
However, symptoms are generally milder than they were during the peak of the pandemic a few years ago, and the most vulnerable people have added protection in the way of booster shots.
While hospital admissions should be kept a close eye on, epidemiologists told Yahoo News that waves like this are something we should expect as we learn to "live with COVID".
"There are going to be periods, as numbers of cases are increasing, hospitalisations are going up, and we're all going to get a little bit more worried, and that's what it's going to be like for the foreseeable future," said Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
"One thing we can all do – if we want to, although we have to pay for it now – is to get ourselves tested. That's something I personally would do before going to see an elderly or vulnerable relative."