There are mounting concerns that a severe winter or flu epidemic on top of any second wave of Covid-19 infections could overwhelm the NHS for a second time leading to more deaths and cancelled operations.
Mr Hancock said community pharmacists would be key to helping vaccinate as many at risk people such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions.
He said: “We all know that having had an incredibly difficult six months, the next big moment is as winter approaches. We’re currently planning in detail for winter. And we’re expecting high demand and pharmacies will play a critical role.
Matt Hancock has said the UK will see the biggest seasonal flu vaccination drive in history this winter to try and mitigate the fear of a winter crisis mixed with coronavirus.
Speaking remotely at the National Pharmacy Association annual conference, Mr Hancock said the government was planning now for winter, adding: “We’re going to frankly need to use all of the capabilities at our disposal to deliver the vaccine programmes that we need to in the months ahead.”
“There’s a huge amount of work to do. We still don’t know the long-term health impacts of coronavirus. We still have just one treatment that’s clinically proven to be effective in reducing its impact.
“We’re working hard on a combination of the Covid vaccination programme, should a vaccine work, and of course, the science on that is as yet unproven. And of course, the biggest flu vaccination programme in history. I want to see pharmacies involved in that flu vaccine rollout.”
He said plans announced last year as part of a new contract with community pharmacies had been paused due to the Covid-19 crisis but this this was only temporary.
“I’m certain that you are an untapped resource,” he told the audience adding that with better technology pharmacies could be integrated more into the existing NHS to take pressure off GPs.
He said: “I’m keen to see people with minor illnesses referred to community pharmacy. To take pressure off GPs, and crucially deliver a better service.
“Twenty million GP appointments can be referred to community pharmacists every year. And there’s much much more that you can do.”
Mr Hancock said the government’s goal was to ensure “all pharmacists should be operating at the top of their qualifications, at the top of their licence”.
Questioned by audience members on funding, Mr Hancock said he could give no clear commitments today. But he acknowledged that as pharmacies were asked to do more, the NHS and government would need to pay more.