The government is considering pausing its plans to make coronavirus vaccination mandatory for NHS staff, according to a report, over fears that some 70,000 health service staff could be lost as a result.
The new rules are set to come into force on 1 April – with the necessary gap between doses meaning that staff who have not received their first jab by 3 February will soon start to receive letters of dismissal.
Both the Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Midwives have separately called upon Sajid Javid, the health secretary, to halt the move voted for by MPs last month, with the former warning it “would be an act of self-sabotage” in light of the staffing crisis plaguing the NHS.
An increasingly embattled Boris Johnson – who is fighting to save his job over allegations of lockdown-busting parties in No 10 – faces continued opposition from Tory MPs over the plans, the vote on which constituted one of the largest rebellions of his premiership so far.
As the prime minister announced an end to England’s plan B restrictions in the Commons on Thursday, Tory MP Andrew Murrison – a former Royal Navy surgeon – challenged him to “think again” on the vaccine mandate, citing “leaked advice” from officials to ministers warning that the move “is neither rational nor proportionate given what we now know about Omicron, and its behaviour”.
Now sources have told the i newspaper that a temporary suspension of the policy is being “actively” looked at within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), following multiple warnings and pleas from hospital trusts.
But a spokesperson for the department told The Independent that “ensuring staff are vaccinated is the right thing to do to protect patients and those in care” and said there were no plans to change the implementation dates for the policy.
NHS chiefs have warned in recent months that the staffing crisis is worsening, with the latest figures suggesting there are nearly 100,000 vacancies and, in some regions, more than one in 10 posts left unfilled.
An impact assessment published by the government in November warned that 73,000 NHS staff could be lost in England due to the vaccine mandate.
Fears may have been compounded by the leaked document referred to by Mr Murrison, in which DHSC officials warned ministers that recent evidence on the decreased efficacy of two jabs against Omicron – and on the variant’s reduced virulence – cast doubts over the law’s proportionality, creating a higher chance of objections and judicial review, according to The Guardian.
Mr Johnson said in the Commons on Thursday that it is “the responsibility of all healthcare professionals to be vaccinated” and said that the move to make vaccination mandatory was supported by the NHS in order to better protect patients from in-hospital infection.
But he was also reported to have said: “We will reflect on the way ahead. We don't want to drive people out of the service.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said on Friday: “Health and social care workers look after the most vulnerable people in society, who could face serious health consequences if exposed to the virus.
“Ensuring staff are vaccinated is the right thing to do to protect patients and those in care. The vast majority of NHS staff have had the vaccine which is our best defence against Covid-19.”