Boris Johnson is under growing pressure from Tory MPs and unions to abandon plans to impose a vaccine mandate on NHS workers as fears mount over a resulting staffing crisis.
On 3 February, unvaccinated NHS health workers in public-facing roles have a final chance to get their first Covid jab, if they wish to meet the vaccine mandate deadline. At the start of April, they must all be double jabbed to keep their jobs.
This move follows similar legislation in the care sector, where mandatory vaccines came into effect in November.
An estimated 91% of NHS workers had already been double vaccinated, and over 55,000 came forward for their first jabs since the government announced the impending mandate. However, a remaining 94,000 staff working in the NHS are still unvaccinated, and run the risk of losing their jobs in April.
The exodus that compulsory vaccination would trigger is going to create a “staffing nightmare”, warns Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, in a sector which “cannot afford to lose experienced and skilled staff.”
The GMB has echoed this view, warning that such a “heavy-handed” approach “will deepen the health service’s devastating staff black hole.”
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Join our ‘Best Of’ newsletter and we’ll send you a weekly email with highlights of what you’ve missed and details of our upcoming live events.
Over the past month, dozens of NHS trusts across the country have declared critical incidents, largely because staffing shortages made it impossible to maintain safe levels of practice. Compulsory jabs would only deepen this crisis.
The NHS already has an estimated 93,000 vacancies, including for 40,000 nurses. And the Royal College of Midwives says there is a shortage of roughly 2,500 midwives.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, has warned that in one hospital trust which he chose not to name, 40 midwives are refusing to get vaccinated meaning the maternity unit may have to close when the mandate comes into place.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has pointed out that, ”contrary to what some people feared”, no care homes have been forced to close due to staff shortages since the mandatory vaccination policy for carers came into effect.
However, a House of Lords scrutiny committee argued last month that the government has failed to make clear how expected staff losses would be mitigated.
Staff shortages is just one issue. A vaccine mandate also raises complex ethical questions about civil liberties.
Those in favour argue that the wider public health gains of compulsory vaccination is enough to justify stripping individuals of bodily autonomy.
But those against compulsory jabs claim they are not in interest of the wider population’s health if the deepening staffing crisis results in poorer care in hospitals across the country.
What’s more, the Royal College of Midwives has voiced concerns that firing unvaccinated midwives will “severely impact those (vaccinated) midwives and maternity support workers left behind”, burdened with an even greater workload.
Arguably, medics have a duty of care to come forward for their vaccines. Working in a hospital means doing everything within your power to protect vulnerable patients, which now includes getting a jab.
Yet critics of the policy, including Esther McVey, Conservative MP for Tatton since 2017, have argued that it’s “utterly unjustifiable” to threaten NHS staff, who’ve risked their own lives to “work tirelessly on the frontline” throughout the pandemic, with job loss. Other Tory MPs, including senior backbencher Mark Harper and Sir Desmond Swayne have urged the PM to rethink the mandate.
However, many unvaccinated NHS staff won’t be fired straight away. According to Javid, they will be offered the opportunity for redeployment into non-patient-facing roles where they don’t pose a risk to others.
There is another issue to consider. How much of a risk do unvaccinated staff actually pose to others?
Vaccines offer a solid shield against severe illness from an Omicron infection. Yet their ability to prevent transmission of the virus is much weaker.
If vaccination doesn’t necessarily stop you spreading the virus, this weakens the case for forcing individuals to get vaccinated on the grounds of protecting others.