Thursday’s deadline for frontline NHS staff in England to have received their first jab against Covid-19 has been scrapped after health ministers announced a consultation on removing vaccination as a condition of deployment for health and social care workers.
Health secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons yesterday that the risk of admission to A&E for the Omicron variant is approximately half of that for Delta. He said it was right and responsible to “revisit the balance of risks and opportunities that guided our original decision last year”.
The government had set a deadline of 1 April 2022 for frontline NHS staff to have been vaccinated twice meaning unjabbed workers would need to receive their first jab by Thursday 3 February.
But amid pressure from health leaders and unions, as well as a staffing shortfall of more than 100,000 roles, ministers confirmed subject to consultation the government will revoke the regulation in health and all social care settings.
It’s estimated that around 77,000 NHS staff are not vaccinated. The Royal College of Midwives said the policy could have a “catastrophic impact” on maternity services and both the Royal College of GPs and Royal College of Nursing called for the requirement to be delayed.
NHS workers who oppose the policy have staged protests in major cities.
“While vaccination remains our very best line of defence against Covid-19, I believe it is no longer proportionate to require vaccination as a condition of deployment through statute,” said Javid.
“I have always been clear that our rules must remain proportionate and balanced – and of course, should we see another dramatic change in the virus, it would be responsible to review this policy again,” he told MPs.
“Some basic facts remain: vaccines save lives, and everyone working in health and social care has a professional duty to be vaccinated against Covid-19.”
The health secretary has written to professional regulators asking them to urgently review current guidance on vaccinations, including Covid-19 to emphasise their professional responsibilities in this area.
He has also asked the NHS to review policies on the hiring of new staff and the deployment of existing staff, taking into account their vaccination status, and for officials in the Department of Health and Social Care to consult on its code of practice which applies to all providers of all health and social care in England registered with the Care Quality Commission.
Workers in social care settings, who have been mandated to be fully vaccinated since November, will now be able to reapply for jobs. The National Care Association has estimated the sector has lost around 40,000 people since then.
Chair Nadra Ahmed said: “The people who we’ve lost, we hope they’ll think about coming back and we will do everything we can to try and encourage them to come back, but they will have found other roles and they may be happier in their other roles now and not want to move again.”
Patricia Marquis, director of the Royal College of Nursing in England, said: “This climbdown by government has come too late for those social care staff who have already lost their jobs.
“To risk thousands more nursing staff being sacked in the middle of a staffing crisis was never in the interests of patients’ safety.
“Vaccination is hugely important but this was the wrong policy, especially as it added to the current pressure on NHS and care services. Staff are being spread thinner and thinner and struggling to care for their patients safely.
“The Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective and the RCN encourages everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
In a joint statement, the chief executives of NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, Matthew Taylor and Chris Hopson, said they had always been clear that encouraging as many NHS staff as possible to get vaccinated was the right approach for staff.
Their members would have preferred longer to implement the policy, and were mindful of the risk of losing key staff who were doubtful about vaccination.
“NHS leaders are frustrated to have such a significant change in policy at the 11th hour given all the hard and complex work that has gone into meeting the deadline set by the government. They recognise the reasons the government has given for the changes – the risk to services and the different risk from Omicron compared to previous variants.
“But there will be concern at what this means for wider messaging about the importance of vaccination for the population as a whole. We must also be mindful of the frustration this late change will have caused for some staff and the government must ensure clear guidance is quickly made available to support managers to implement this change in approach.”
After the consultation on vaccines as a condition of deployment was launched and regulations enforced, vaccine uptake among care home staff rose from 77% to 95%. The scrapping of manadatory vaccination is subject to a period of consultation and parliamentary approval, but with Labour supporting the move, a change in the regulations is a formality.