Staff in care homes with older residents could be required to have a Covid-19 vaccine under government proposals.
The Department of Health and Social Care has published a consultation into making the vaccination a condition of employment for people working in residential care homes for older people, unless they are exempt for medical reasons.
Some care home operators including Care UK and Barchester Healthcare have already decided to make vaccinations mandatory for new starters.
Currently, only 53% of older adult care homes meet SAGE advice on vaccination thresholds. It advises that 80% of staff and 90% of residents should be vaccinated to provide a minimum level of protection against coronavirus outbreaks.
Fewer than 80% of care home staff are vaccinated in more than half of local authority areas and across all 32 London boroughs.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Older people living in care homes are most at risk of suffering serious consequences of Covid-19 and we have seen the grave effects the virus has had on this group.
“Making vaccines a condition of deployment is something many care homes have called for, to help them provide greater protection for staff and residents in older people’s care homes and so save lives.
“The vaccine is already preventing deaths and is our route out of this pandemic. We have a duty of care to those most vulnerable to Covid-19, so it is right we consider all options to keep people safe.”
Barchester Healthcare chief executive Dr Pete Calveley said: “We have not lightly introduced our vaccine policy, but we take the view that providing safe care for those we care for is our paramount obligation.
“As the chief medical officer has said, it is a professional duty for care home staff to accept the vaccine unless there is a medical reason they should not.
“As time has progressed, the safety, efficacy and transmission-reduction evidence has become ever stronger, which supports our initial view.”
The five-week consultation seeks views on the scope of the proposal, how it could be implemented, and whether it would have an effect on staffing levels and safety.
However, employment lawyer Claire Brook from Aaron & Partners warned that the policy could present complex legal issues including the protection of an individual’s right to a private life and an individual’s bodily integrity under the Human Rights Act 1998, as well as protection from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, and protection from unfair dismissal.
She said: “It is clear that preservation of life of vulnerable residents, service users and staff is a legitimate aim in considering mandatory vaccination, evidenced by the critically high incidences and spread of Covid-19 within the sector.
“Additionally, the aim of reducing sickness absence levels and the strain faced by an already stretched workforce self-isolating could also be legitimate. During the consultation period, the government will no doubt be carefully considering whether the proposed measure is proportionate in seeking to achieve these aims.”
Nathan Donaldson, an employment solicitor at Keystone Law, said: “The consultation from the government on making Covid-19 vaccinations a condition of employment for those in the care sector is a welcome step as it will provide further guidance and hopefully certainty on what an employer can require from its staff.
“It is hoped that the outcome of the consultation will result in legislation that will support providers to make long-term and pragmatic decisions to ensure the welfare of its employees, residents and their families.
“It is also assumed that any steps to make vaccinations mandatory will have associated safeguards, through requiring informing and consultation obligations upon the employer and for legitimate exceptions to apply where vaccination would not be appropriate. Such as relating to those employees who have a disability, pre-existing medical condition or are of an age or religious/philosophical belief that would afford them reasonable grounds to refuse vaccination.”