Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has suggested that accessibility issues and hesitancy over safety are behind lower uptake of coronavirus vaccines among social care workers.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said around a third of social care staff have not received a jab, despite them being on the priority list.
The disclosure prompted concerns over the safety of elderly and vulnerable residents, as well as suggestions that employers could require staff to have vaccines.
Mr Zahawi said the lower rates among care staff are “partly driven by accessibility” but that repeat visits are “beginning to pay off”, as is the national booking system.
“So I think part of it is giving them much greater access to get their appointments at a time that’s convenient to them and of course make sure we share the information about how safe vaccines are,” he told LBC radio.
But the minister declined to clarify whether employers can legally require staff to disclose whether they have received a coronavirus vaccine.
Instead, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The vaccination is not mandatory.
“Employers have been talking to us, they are concerned about their duty of care for the residents, the elderly residents, especially if the virus mutates. At the moment, the dominant virus in the UK, the vaccines work well against the dominant virus.”
No official data has been published on how many health and social care staff have received a jab.
Downing Street has urged care home staff to come forward and get vaccinated.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We are asking everybody to come forward and take the vaccine. We’ve been clear that it is safe and effective and not only provides protection but it also provides protection for those around them.
“So of course we’re asking everybody to come forward and take the vaccines, including care home workers.”
One large UK care home group, which asked to remain anonymous, told the PA news agency that almost 70% of its staff have received a vaccine as of Monday.
The remainder have not taken up a vaccine either because they are ineligible due to medical conditions, work in a home where there is a Covid-19 outbreak so vaccination teams have not been able to visit, or are reluctant, with a small number influenced by misinformation.
The group said it could not give breakdowns for how many staff are in each of these groups.
It welcomed the news that staff can now book an appointment through the national system as “another opportunity for them to access above and beyond what they already have”.
The group added that it has no plans to penalise current or new staff who have not taken a vaccine.
A spokesman said: “We are completely supportive of the Government’s view that this should be a personal decision and our job is to provide all our team with factual, honest information that allows them to make informed choices for themselves.
“Our second obligation is to make sure we provide access and opportunity for our team members to take the vaccine if they so choose.”
Barchester Healthcare, which operates more than 200 UK care homes, said 77% of its staff have been vaccinated as of February 15, adding that 6% of staff have not yet decided to have the jab.
A spokesman said: “We are doing all we can to reassure and encourage those staff who are a little more reticent to have the vaccination, and we are also doing all we can to ensure that all new staff will have the vaccination (if they medically can) before starting work and looking after our vulnerable residents and patients who are in our care.
“We have been working hard to ensure that all of our staff are aware of the facts around the vaccination, and as we have previously said, we have done a lot of communication to understand and alleviate any concerns.”
More than two-thirds (69%) of Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare staff have received a jab, and 9% have refused one when it was offered.
The remaining team members are ineligible due to underlying health conditions or a recent positive Covid-19 test, or have previously struggled with accessing a booked appointment.
Of the 9%, these are mainly people who are reluctant, as opposed to being certain they do not want a jab, and it is hoped that continued discussions and improved access will enable them to take it up.
Some have fallen prey to misinformation, including that the jab will affect fertility, which England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has called a “nasty, pernicious scare story”.
Anna Selby, head of the groups’ Covid-19 taskforce, said: “It is great that the Government set such an ambitious deadline, but more needs to be done to encourage uptake.
“It is not enough to vaccinate the most vulnerable.
“In order to truly protect our residents, we need to achieve high level of immunity amongst the wider population, but particularly those they are in contact with.”
Independent Care Group chairman Mike Padgham said staff should be encouraged to have the vaccine but not coerced.
He said: “To anyone, particularly care staff, who are hesitating I would say, have the vaccine for your own sake and for the safety of our most vulnerable.”