NHS trust leaders are divided about whether the government should press ahead with mandatory jabs for healthcare workers in England after the prime minister told MPs he was considering relaxing the policy.
About 80,000 frontline NHS workers have still not had a Covid vaccination and have less than two weeks to have their first dose in time to be able to complete the course before the 1 April deadline.
Trusts have been told to begin either dismissing or redeploying unvaccinated staff after 3 February, but there are more than 90,000 vacancies and thousands more absences for Covid-related reasons. On Friday, Boris Johnson told backbench Conservative MPs he was looking again at the policy.
Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “NHS leaders have always been clear there are risks as well as benefits to mandating the Covid-19 vaccination for all health and social care staff.” He said trusts had told the confederation they “would have preferred longer to implement the policy”.
“As the deadline approaches some frontline staff will have to leave their present roles if they continue to decline to be vaccinated. This will reduce frontline NHS staff numbers even further and lead to more gaps in capacity at a time of intense pressure and patient demand,” he said.
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders are worried about exacerbating staff shortages at a time when the service is under huge operational pressure. At the time it was proposed, our survey found that 90% of trust leaders – regardless of whether they support mandatory vaccinations or not – were concerned about the potential for additional staff gaps in both the NHS and social care.
“Some organisations are calling for a delay in this policy, but we don’t think that is the answer. Our survey of trust leaders found a majority backed this policy as a means of protecting colleagues, patients and visitors from cross-infection by unvaccinated staff.”
Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Our view is that mandation of vaccination for health professionals is not the right way forward. Informed choice is much better than forcing people to get it because that just risks generating mistrust.”
It was reported last night that an option being considered by Downing Street is to delay the requirement for six months to help quell a revolt among Tory MPs. The compulsory requirement is likely to be “kicked down the road” amid demands by Tory backbenchers for it to be dropped entirely, the Sunday Telegraph reported.
Vaccinations were made mandatory for social care staff, which has an even greater shortage of workers than the NHS, but those who are not vaccinated can apply for an exemption on medical or religious grounds, and are able to self-certificate until 31 March.
Even so, the number of staff employed directly by care homes has fallen by more than 20,000 since the regulations were introduced in July 2021.
Research by the Department of Health and Social Care in December found that 81.9% of social care providers found it more challenging to recruit staff than six months earlier, and 70.3% said it was harder to retain staff. The second most common reason given for workers leaving care homes was that they did not want to be vaccinated.
Dr Nikki Kanani, the deputy lead for NHS England’s Covid vaccination programme, said that teams had been going to great lengths to deliver vaccinations, even giving one person with learning needs a jab while they sat in a hot tub at home.
“Mandatory vaccination is a government policy but as healthcare professionals we all have a duty to make sure that we are protected, to make sure that our colleagues and our patients are protected,” she said.
“I know that our teams will be doing everything they can to continue to have vaccine confidence building conversations and offering that all important vaccination to staff who are yet to have their first, second or their booster dose.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “Ensuring staff are vaccinated is the right thing to do to protect patients and those in care. The vast majority of NHS staff have had the vaccine, which is our best defence against Covid-19.”