COVID vaccine mandate u-turn spares NHS from staffing collapse

A mandatory COVID vaccination policy for NHS workers in England has been scrapped at the last minute.

Health secretary Sajid Javid announced yesterday evening (31 January) that the government plans to axe its plans for mandatory vaccinations, after fears were raised by organisations including the British Medical Association (BMA) and Unison that it would make an already severe staffing crisis unbearable.

The government will now launch a consultation on ending the rules, which would have required all patient-facing staff to have been fully vaccinated by 1 April - making the deadline for their first dose 3 February.

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An impact assessment by the Department of Health and Social Care found in November that around 5% of the primary care workforce, around 75,000 workers, could have lost their jobs.

Javid told the House of Commons: "While vaccination remains our very best line of defence against COVID-19, I believe that it is no longer proportionate to require vaccination as a condition of deployment through statute.

“Today, I'm announcing that we will launch a consultation on ending vaccination as a condition of deployment in health and social care settings. 

“Subject to the responses and the will of this house, the government will revoke the regulations.”

Patricia Marquis, director of England for the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This climbdown by government is long overdue.

“Vaccination is hugely important, but this was the wrong policy, especially as it added to the current pressure on the NHS and care services.”

The NHS has faced sustained challenges to staffing over the past two years, but a particular challenge of the Omicron variant’s emergence in the past two months has been its high transmissibility, which means that many healthcare staff are forced to stay at home.

According to the British Medical Journal, some hospital leaders have seen as many as one in 10 of their staff were off sick or isolating.

Marquis added: “It was never in the interests of patient safety to threaten tens of thousands with dismissal in the middle of a staffing crisis.”

Unison, which represents nearly 500,000 members in the healthcare sector, criticised the government's inconsistency. 

General secretary Christina McAnea said: “Ministers were repeatedly warned that the vaccination rules would create chaos, but they chose not to listen. This is entirely a crisis of the government’s making. 

“Frustratingly, this was all so predictable. Although it looks like a weakened prime minister is about to at last sanction a welcome u-turn, the damage has already been done. 

“Thousands of care workers have been forced from the jobs they love, leaving employers struggling to provide safe care.”

Alan Price, CEO at consultancy BrightHR, told HR magazine that it would have been extremely difficult for care providers to continue running if the policy had been enforced.

He said: “The government’s u-turn decision will likely be welcomed by many in the health and social care settings who were concerned about the impact this would have on staffing resources. 

“Tens of thousands of staff members were expected to lose their jobs as a result of the requirements, making it near impossible for organisations to continue operating.”

Some employers, he said, had raised concerns that they would have had to close down completely, as they simply wouldn’t have been able to provide a safe standard of care. 

Price added: “The removal of the mandate, however, takes the pressure off of such employers, allowing them to focus on the retention of existing staff and recruitment of others, to further grow and enhance their individual care functions.

“Similarly, it alleviates the strain on employee relations and reduces the number of grievances being raised, to allow for a better company culture.”