How can I get a swine flu jab in London?
February 12, 2010 6:24 AM   Subscribe

I live in London and would like to get vaccinated for swine flu. I am not in a "high risk" group. How can I do this?

As far as I can tell, in the UK the swine flu jab has only been offered to people considered "high risk". I don't fall into any of the official "high risk" categories, but would like to get immunised anyway. It seems that the UK has a surplus of vaccine but for some reason isn't offering it to the general public.

I have an appointment with my GP on Monday, and will definitely be asking her about this, but I when I asked last year, I was just told I wasn't eligible. I am happy to purchase the vaccine if necessary - I understand this option is available for the usual seasonal flu jab? I'd appreciate some advice, even if it's just about how to talk to my doctor about the issue.
posted by handclaps to Health & Fitness (13 answers total)
but for some reason isn't offering it to the general public.
Well, the reason is they've decided that the risk is so low that we don't need it, so to get it on the NHS you'll need to convince the GP you do need (rather than "would like") it, which will be difficult when HMG says you don't.

If you can't come up with an actual reason, say you're due to do a lot of travelling to areas with swine flu -- but if you're seeing the same GP she might well remember you asking before and be on to you.

The private option should still be doable, if you have a private provider.
posted by bonaldi at 6:45 AM on February 12, 2010

Have you looked at the NHS pandemic flu FAQ?

And if you are not at risk, why do you want it?
posted by ninebelow at 6:46 AM on February 12, 2010

If you can't persuade your GP to give you the jab, you could try somewhere like

(Although, to reiterate ninebelow's point, if your GP isn't convinced you need it, chances are you don't)
posted by Hartster at 7:31 AM on February 12, 2010

To those who answer this question saying, "You don't really need it" - well, not actually answering the question and it's a personal preference.

You have 2 issues here. The first is that the way the vaccine has been manufactured, in layman's terms, it is in vials that hold 10-15 jabs. So for example, here in Canada, while GPs have it, they are reticent to give it as they are opening a vial for one person and then wasting the remaining 9-14 potential jabs.

The second is that the UK just isn't giving it to normal folk (argue the reasons elsewhere). A friend tried to get it there before Christmas and couldn't. Unhelpful because he travels worldwide, spends days on end on airplanes etc etc. The GP he saw recommended a travel clinic on Harley Street - so this may be an option for you if you're in London and want to spend the bucks.
posted by meerkatty at 7:45 AM on February 12, 2010

(Oh, and for the seasonal flu jab, I just got mine at Boots. Ask the chemist.)
posted by meerkatty at 7:50 AM on February 12, 2010

Go private.
posted by dmt at 7:55 AM on February 12, 2010

Thanks for your answers.

Have you looked at the NHS pandemic flu FAQ?

Yes, several times, thank you. Unfortunately it does not answer my question.

And if you are not at risk, why do you want it?

For those asking why I want a swine flu vaccination, or telling me I don't need it, I would like one for the same reason that anyone wants a seasonal flu shot: to avoid catching a virus that could cause me weeks of suffering and lost productivity. Yes, I understand the NHS prioritises the vaccine for those most at risk; vaccines are sometimes rationed because of cost and available stocks. Given that there's plenty of stock, and that I don't mind paying for it, I don't see any ethical problems with trying to find out if I can get vaccinated. My question is: can I?

if you're seeing the same GP she might well remember you asking before and be on to you.

I don't mind if my GP is "on to me"; The swine flu vaccination is not a narcotic. When I first asked my doctor, the vaccine has only just become available in the UK. I have read in the news that everyone in a high risk group in the UK has now been offered the vaccine, and that the government has so much surplus that it's considering selling most of it off. It's not unreasonable to think that in such circumstances, the government may make it possible for the general population to get the jab - either on the NHS or by purchasing it from a chemist.

I am not from the UK (I moved here a couple of years ago) and am still getting the hang of how things work here.

Thanks so much, meercatty, for answering my question.

Thanks dmt; however I do not have private health insurance and don't want to sign up just for a single vaccination.
posted by handclaps at 8:27 AM on February 12, 2010

and it's a personal preference.
I am not from the UK (I moved here a couple of years ago) and am still getting the hang of how things work here.

Yes. As an American immigrant friend of mine discovered (to her then horror), the way things work here is not a million miles away from the Oliver Twist model. You want medication? You shuffle up and say "please, sir, can I have some more?". Essentially, you take what you're given and be grateful for it. Her (standard in the US) demands for a choice of medication in A&E were given very short shrift.

Of course, you can work within in the system and push and fight for various courses of treatment, but the overriding and compelling way to do this is to have a demonstrable medical need for something. Your personal preferences very rarely come into play.

That's why I say it's relevant that your GP could be "on to you": if they think you're just seeking the vaccine out of a personal desire for it, and they're under instruction not to give it to anybody outside of certain pre-defined groups, they'll be much less likely to bend the rules for you.

The NHS is badly over-burdened and is trying to provide universal healthcare. That means it has an institutional bias towards saying "no" where it can, in order that it can say "yes" where it needs to. In cases like this one, where overall there appears to be plenty of vaccine, that institutional inertia will still most likely win the day, I'm afraid
posted by bonaldi at 9:59 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

You don't have to buy private health insurance to go private for medical services (the link above to Bupa was misleading); you just have to get to a clinic and pay for it. Incidentally, the doctors working in private clinics aside from Harley Street and the like are very often the same ones who have NHS practices. Private flu jabs aren't particularly expensive.

Someone already mentioned, and a Google search on [private flu jabs in London] brings up a couple of private clinics. Another relevant site is
which tells where the cheaper flu jabs can be found.

As an American living in England for several years now, I do sympathise with how hard it is to get medical information, not because it isn't there to find, but because people use different terms for some things, and, the much bigger barrier in my experience, the assumptions about what one normally does for medical things are so different, putting me culturally out of sync. I usually have to find a sympathetic Briton and have one of those conversations where I'm struggling to find the right questions to ask and my companion is struggling to figure out what I could possibly be trying to find out, and we work together and try to make assumptions explicit and eventually we've both learned something and then we have to revive ourselves with a cup of tea. Hard work, this cultural thingamie.
posted by jillzilla at 5:07 PM on February 12, 2010

Private health care is probably best for demanding medication you don't demonstrably need.

Not demanding. Enquiring.

Actually, I am finding the tone of some of these answers really fascinating. I suspect my question's breaking some sort of UK cultural rule, but I'm not sure what it is.

As it happens, I'm not from the US; I'm Australian. We do have a type of universal healthcare in Australia, but it works differently to the NHS, and I am sometimes bewildered by those differences.

In fact, one of the main reasons I'm asking this question is that Australia's chief health officer is urging the general public to take swine flu seriously and get vaccinated. It looks like the vaccine is free in Australia. (There is an expectation that a second wave of the virus will probably hit the Southern Hemisphere during the winter and become the predominant flu strain.) This is so different to the NHS's approach that I've been wondering if, in fact, people are getting vaccinated here in the UK but I just don't know about it because I'm not asking the right questions of my doctor. But I guess not. (Incidentally, I do fall into a "high risk" category according to Australian guidelines, but not according to the NHS.)

Thanks, bonaldi and jillzilla - your answers have been really helpful.
posted by handclaps at 6:45 PM on February 12, 2010

I suspect my question's breaking some sort of UK cultural rule, but I'm not sure what it is.
I think you're right, but articulating that rule is incredibly difficult: I tried to do it with my friend, and had similar experiences to those jillzilla had. I mean, it has roots in the class system, in not being uppity, in politeness, in the public school system, the blitz spirit: all notoriously tricky British cultural areas.

I think what it boils down to is that the NHS isn't only free -- it's normatively free: if it's good enough for us, it should be good enough for you, too. If they don't want to treat you, that's it, stop there. Don't wave your money around trying to get around our system, you foreigner you, we don't take bribes.

This is the thing my friend had a problem with: the American model of healthcare is that while a free system is all well and good for the broke, if you can afford better you should be able to pay for it. The NHS isn't like that: if you want to pay for better does that mean you think you're better than the rest of us? Are you some kind of snob? Is the NHS not good enough for you? It's good enough for us. We want our healthcare to be the best for all of us, and it won't be if you toffs buy your way out. This attitude is common both inside and outside the NHS: there were strikes in the 1980s because nursing staff didn't want to treat private patients inside NHS buildings.

I think the thing that trips newcomers up is that they assume paying for healthcare is just like any other transaction, when it just isn't here: if you do it, you're saying things about yourself and others, and a lot of people don't like that. People like us just don't pay for these things. Hell, the state of our teeth is the leading example of this: dentistry isn't on the NHS, and the same classes of people who'd happily pay for years of extensive work in the US won't go beyond checkups and possibly braces here.

You'll find too that people are protective of the NHS in the same way they're protective of the BBC, only much more so. Imagine you'd come over here to stay, and a kindly old great-aunt has offered her spare room for you to live in. But when you get there, you take one look and say that she doesn't have a good enough stereo and the bed's a bit springy, so you tell her that her house isn't good enough, and ask if you could be taken to a hotel. When the aunt is insulted, you reply "What's wrong with you? It's my money I want to spend!"

That might actually be the best advice on how to approach your GP: as if she were an old great-aunt you were trying to avoid insulting by rejecting her free help. My friend's first time in A&E she demanded to know all about the drugs she was being given and what her alternatives were. She ended up in a fight. After I'd talked to her, she tried being much more supplicating, much more "I'm really sorry, but would you mind talking me through this?" and got on much better. (Actually, that's probably a rule for British life: you can't go wrong slathering everything in apologies.)

I'm sorry, I know this sounds insane and that I'm being all over-the-place here, but it's hard to describe something when you've only got a vague outline of what's not "normal" about it! I'll grant that a lot of this is barking, and I think a lot of people would deny it, too. It's hypocritical, for sure: people wouldn't even think of hiring a specialist for a second opinion on cancer, but paying for cosmetic surgery is common. For what it's worth, I don't think anybody here actively thinks all of this, it's just where our norms have some of their roots.

Unspoken, perplexing and all-pervasive. That's the British way.
posted by bonaldi at 7:58 PM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

bonaldi, that is really helpful - thanks for taking the time to explain. Some of the responses above now make a lot more sense to me.

I've just looked it up to make sure, and yes, everyone in Australia is entitled to the swine flu vaccination for free. Frustrating as I find it, I guess I will just have to accept that I'm not there, I'm here, and I can't have one.
posted by handclaps at 8:29 PM on February 12, 2010

Actually, I am finding the tone of some of these answers really fascinating. I suspect my question's breaking some sort of UK cultural rule, but I'm not sure what it is.

As a Canadian who lived in the UK for 5 years, this made me laugh out loud. There are a lot of questions and answers on this board from seriously confused non-UK people attempting to deal with often illogical and confusing British cultural practices. I can't remember such an excellent answer about the bizarre way people deal with the NHS on here before, though - kudos to bonaldi .
posted by meerkatty at 8:43 PM on February 12, 2010

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