Northern Ireland’s Health Minister has announced a public consultation on a proposal for compulsory Covid-19 and flu vaccination for new health and social care workers in the region.
Robin Swann said requiring existing staff to get jabbed could be counterproductive and could further destabilise a workforce that is already severed depleted.
But he insisted no option was off the table and said he had “great sympathy” for the view that patients should only be treated by fully vaccinated staff.
The minister said making vaccines compulsory for new recruits to the health service would be a “significant development” and needed careful consideration.
He said there was not a predetermined outcome to the public consultation exercise as he urged people to make their views known.
The announcement comes after the UK Government announced that frontline NHS staff in England will need to be vaccinated against coronavirus.
Workers in England will have until April next year to get both Covid-19 jabs.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described the issue as “very challenging”, adding he has heard representations on both sides of the debate.
“I think there is a very delicate balance to be struck, in the end the health minister must make the call on this and we will continue to engage with him on it,” he told media in Belfast.
“What we want to ensure is of course, first and foremost, the safety of those who use the health service but at the same time also to protect the rights of those who work within the health service, and these decisions are always difficult and challenging and we will work with the health minister to ensure that we get the right outcome for the health service of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Swann said: “Vaccination is central to our efforts to support health and social care services during this extremely challenging winter and beyond.
“I remain convinced that persuasion is the best and most effective option when it comes to vaccination.
“There are compelling arguments that mandatory vaccination for existing health and social care staff in NI could be counter-productive, potentially destabilising an already fragile workforce.
“Against that, I also have great sympathy for those who only want their loved ones to be cared for by fully vaccinated staff.
“All options remain under consideration.
“I will closely monitor the situation in England, including the impact of mandatory vaccination on staffing in its social care sector.
“Notwithstanding the challenges, I want to see progress in this area.
“I look to trusts, care homes and other employers to continue making every effort to persuade staff of the benefits of both Covid-19 and flu vaccination.
“Furthermore, in announcing my intention to consult on making Covid and flu vaccination compulsory for people starting new jobs in health and social care, I want a constructive engagement.
“There is no predetermined outcome.
“Trade unions, employees and employers will have a key role in this consultation, but the views of the general public will also be very important.”
Earlier, Stormont deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said making vaccinations compulsory for frontline healthcare workers in Northern Ireland would raise human rights concerns.
Ms O’Neill has said she would consider any proposal for compulsory vaccines for health staff but stressed she would favour a voluntary approach.
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said she did not believe Northern Ireland was at the point where such a policy was required.
The comments from the SDLP deputy leader appear at odds with party leader Colum Eastwood’s past position on the issue.
In September, Mr Eastwood voiced support for mandatory jabs for healthcare workers.
Ms O’Neill said she would engage with Mr Swann on the issue.
“I have always been someone who would be more of an advocate of encouraging uptake of the vaccine, educating people as to why it’s so important and I think those people that work in the health service obviously understand that more than most,” she said.
“So let’s have that conversation with the Health Minister and if he brings forward a proposal then I’ll obviously have to consider that.
“I think mandatory vaccines are obviously something that is always going to come with its human rights concerns and others, so we have to take a decision based on having all that information.”
There are ongoing divisions within the Stormont Executive on the issue of whether mandatory vaccine passports should be introduced for entry to hospitality venues.
The Executive has advised venues to carry out Covid entry checks and an official app has been developed to enable people to show proof of their vaccine status.
However, the administration has stopped short of making it a legal requirement of entry, similar to the system operating in the Irish Republic.
The issue has divided the Stormont administration, with the SDLP and Alliance Party calling for legally enforceable Covid passports for nightlife venues.
SDLP minister Ms Mallon said she would prefer the Executive to move on vaccine passports at this point, rather than compulsory vaccines for healthcare workers.
“I don’t think we need to go down that route right now,” she said of making jabs compulsory for frontline health staff.
“We believe as a party that if we were to introduce the Covid certification in the hospitality settings we would see a significant increase in the level of uptake in vaccines particularly among the younger cohort, which we know is comparatively low when we look at other places.”
In another Covid-19 related development, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has tested positive for the virus.
Mr Lewis tweeted that thanks to the vaccine he is experiencing “only mild symptoms”.
“I have been self-isolating since I first experienced signs of symptoms and following my positive PCR result I will continue to do so in line with Government regulations,” he said.
The deaths of a further seven patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported on Tuesday along with another 1,228 cases of the virus.
On Tuesday morning, there were 395 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 39 in intensive care.