PENSIONERS have slammed NHS Borders over the new system for booking a flu vaccine.

The health board has been unable to cope with the demand for appointments since sending out invitations to over-65s earlier this month.

Many residents have repeatedly phoned the dedicated booking line, only to be met by the voicemail service – with others frustrated by unanswered emails.

"It's a shambles," said Mike Wilson, 78, of Innerleithen. "I think the NHS were ill-prepared and everyone trying to call at the same time could have been avoided."

NHS Borders has revealed it received an average of around 20,000 phone calls every day last week, with around 7,000 emails received so far.

The new booking system was introduced because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The pandemic has led to health chiefs extending the range of people eligible for a free flu vaccine, while another change is that some people will now get their jab at a community venue rather than at their GP practice.

However, the new booking system has caused problems for many residents.

'Someone should be sacked'

"I think people over 65 will find it stressful," said Mr Wilson, a grandfather, who mentors small businesses.

When he spoke to the Border Telegraph, Mr Wilson said that every time he had phoned to book an appointment, he either reached the voicemail service or the call disconnected.

Meanwhile, Peebles resident Mike Weber, 77, says the NHS Borders employee who oversaw the introduction of the booking system "should be sacked".

"To have done this to the Borders is idiocy – it's not rocket science,” said Mr Weber, who formerly worked for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, a Switzerland-based company.

"It's time someone took responsibility."

Mr Weber told this newspaper that he had been unable to book an appointment, despite calling the phone line up to five times a day after sending his first email.

NHS Borders boss says 'sorry'

In response to the surge of applications, NHS Borders' chief executive Ralph Roberts issued a statement last week. The health board also urged people to refrain from “immediately redialling”.

Mr Robert said: “I fully understand why people are frustrated about not being able to get through to our booking line.

“I apologise for the delays that many of you are experiencing and any inconvenience and worry this is causing.

“We recognise, in hindsight, that we could have been better prepared and we are making every effort to expand our booking capacity and learning from what is a new experience for us all.

“I can assure you that our team are working incredibly hard and we will ensure that everyone does get an appointment so that you receive your flu vaccination over the next few months.”

'People need their vaccines'

Borders MSP Christine Grahame says she will “keep an eye” on the situation.

Ms Grahame, of the SNP, said: "I became aware of these issues last week after a number of conversations with constituents and I subsequently got in touch with the chief executive of NHS Borders to raise this as a matter of urgency particularly given how important it is to have good flu vaccine uptake this year so as not to add to any winter strain on the NHS as a result of COVID.

“Following my correspondence with him I understand that NHS Borders are acutely aware of the issues which have been as a result of much higher uptake than in previous years.

“It’s great to see good uptake. However, this resulted in NHS Borders receiving 20,000 calls last Monday alone which simply overwhelmed the system.

“I have been assured that they are trying to address this as quickly as possible by recruiting more staff and offering current staff overtime to cover the booking line.

“It should be noted, however, that there are sufficient vaccine supplies and sufficient appointments to meet demand – this has just been somewhat of an administrative bottleneck.

“I will continue to keep an eye on this and ensure it resolves shortly as it is vital people are able to get these vaccinations in a timely manner.”

What should happen now?

When this newspaper asked Mr Wilson and Mr Weber what action they would like to see taken now, they expressed contrasting ideas.

Mr Weber said: "I'd like to know how the planning was done. Who sent the letter out? Who's at the centre?

"I want people to take responsibility."

Meanwhile, Mr Wilson said: "It's difficult to know what they can do, but they need to do something, and then tell us.

"I hope people don't give up [trying to make an appointment]. It will just take longer."

NHS Borders says it booked 6,000 appointments in the first week.