Compulsory coranvirus vaccines for NHS workers should be delayed until spring in case the move fuels a winter staff shortages crisis, health chiefs have said.
A fifth of frontline healthcare workers are still unvaccinated in some areas, even though they were in the first priority group at the start of the rollout.
The latest NHS figures show that 90 per cent of staff have been double-jabbed. However, around 120,000 workers are not - and at some trusts, including major hospitals in London and Birmingham, uptake is as low as 80 per cent.
Barts Health NHS Trust, Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust, North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust, Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust and Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust all have an uptake of 80 per cent or less, according to NHS figures for the week ending Oct14.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, last week said he was “leaning towards” making jabs compulsory for frontline health workers.
But on Monday, Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said that if the Government was to press ahead, it should delay until April to ensure the NHS could get through the “very, very difficult winter”.
The latest figures suggest the NHS has almost 94,000 vacancies, with a 23 per cent increase since March.
Mr Hopson said around two thirds of NHS leaders backed mandatory jabs, but one third objected. He told BBC Breakfast: “If we lose very large numbers of unvaccinated staff, particularly over the winter period, then that also constitutes a risk to patient safety and quality of care.
“We know – and the chief medical officer has said this really clearly – that we’ve got a very, very difficult winter coming up and we know the NHS is going to be absolutely at full stretch. So it makes sense to set the deadline once that winter period has passed.
“We know that January, February, often early March is very busy, so that's why we're saying today that we think an April 2022 deadline is a sensible time. If we lose very large numbers of staff over the winter period, then our ability to provide care is also compromised.”
The Government has already made jabs compulsory for those working in care homes, with rules taking effect next week.
Last month, watchdogs raised concern that the requirement could worsen the “fragility” of the sector, with low-paid workers instead choosing jobs in hospitality and travel.
Mr Hopson said NHS workers were already being drafted in to cover short-staffing in social care. If compulsory jabs are brought in for the NHS, he said, the service should be given the same five-month notice given to the social care sector – which was warned in June that the rules would take effect this month.
“You just need to look at the problems that social care providers are currently reporting and saying: ‘Look, we are really, really struggling at the moment in terms of staff potentially leaving just at the point when we need them,’” he said.
“And indeed some NHS staff are now having to help out, for example in Cornwall, in the social care sector to ensure that we can discharge people from hospital.”
More time would allow trust leaders to have “supportive, encouraging conversations” with reluctant staff, with take-up lower in groups including women considering starting a family and NHS workers from black communities, he said.
“One of the things we're saying today is please can we ensure that we don't have too quick a deadline so that we can carry on that process and, crucially, we can get through winter,” Mr Hopson added.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “We have taken action to introduce vaccination requirements in care homes and we recently consulted on extending this further across health and other social care services. We will set out our response in due course.”