Inside the mind of the carers that won’t get vaccinated – even though it will cost them their jobs

·8-min read
Michiala Davies - Wayne Perry
Michiala Davies - Wayne Perry

Over the past few weeks Michiala Davies has sat by the bedside of six residents in the Devon care home where she works, comforting them in their final hours after contracting Covid-19. As the senior night supervisor and end of life coordinator at the home, which is currently embroiled in an outbreak of the virus, it is the 46-year-old’s responsibility to provide all the care and comfort she and colleagues can offer.

One of the deaths was so sudden relatives were not able to visit the home in time, so instead Davies assisted a priest in conducting the last rites, preparing the body in her smartest clothes, laying her head on an embroidered pillow and picking flowers from her own garden to place by her bed.

At present two more residents at the home remain on end of life support after also catching Covid during the outbreak. Working 97 hours during the past two weeks, Davies has barely had time to see her four children, who range in age from 25 to six years old; as a single mother, she is relying on the eldest to look after the others in her absence.

“I don’t sleep and I’m constantly in tears,” she says. “I don’t know when I’m going to get the next phone call to say a resident has passed away... They are family members and every death affects us so much.”

But despite seeing the terrible effects of Covid-19 at first-hand, Davies is resolute – she is refusing to be vaccinated.

It is a decision which, when new Government guidelines come into force on November 11, will force her to leave her job and the profession she has worked in for 30 years, with no idea how she will continue to pay the bills and support her family.

Her reason is simple: personal choice. Under new government rules all staff in registered care homes in England must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 from November 11, unless medically exempt. While no anti-vaxxer, Davies has decided that she wishes to delay receiving her Covid jab until the final clinical trials come to a close in 2023.

Even though the vaccinations in use in Britain have already passed stage III clinical trials, it is standard practice for monitoring to continue for several years after a vaccine has been approved for use. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for example, has been given an “estimated study completion date” of May 2023 by regulators in the US.

Some, including those who have imposed the new rules, will no doubt presume that those working in the sector should be concerned enough about their jobs, and indeed those in their care, to get jabbed, but the nature of Davies’s role has cemented in her mind the importance of bodily autonomy. As she puts it: “I have to make personal decisions every day for people who can no longer make them. This is my personal choice. If it means I cannot do my job any longer, then so be it.”

Last Wednesday marked the final deadline for workers to receive their first jab in order to leave the stipulated eight-week gap to enable them to be fully vaccinated by November 11. Of the 470,000 care home workers who look after elderly residents in England, 92 per cent had their first dose as of September 5, while 84 per cent are already fully-jabbed.

But care home managers now fear they are being placed in an impossible choice between breaking the law to keep on vital unvaccinated staff, or forcing them out of their jobs and further exacerbating a staffing crisis, which has already driven care homes to the brink. As one angry care home manager points out, why should his workers require vaccination when visiting family members and other caregivers in the NHS (as yet) do not?

As for the reasons for refusing vaccinations, they are varied. Some care staff, such as strict evangelical Christians, complain to managers that it is against their religious beliefs. Others have succumbed to anti-vaxxer propaganda circulating on social media which makes erroneous claims as to the dangers of the jab. Others have friends or family who have suffered the rare blood clots associated with, in particular, the Oxford AstraZeneca jab (even though the risk of suffering a blood clot after contracting Covid-19 has been proven to be far higher).

Jodie Comer in Help!
Jodie Comer in Help!

As the Government has hardened its position, the refuseniks have followed in kind. As depicted in this week's Channel 4 drama, Help, in which Jodie Comer played a newly-qualified care home worker during the pandemic, the past 18 months have been deeply harrowing for an industry already cut to the bone through years of chronic underinvestment. In imposing the new requirements, ministers have failed to take into account the sheer bloody-mindedness and determination of carers which enables them to do such a demanding job for such little reward, in the first place.

Neither stick, nor carrot appears to be working. One Midlands based care group, P J Care, which operates three care homes in Peterborough and Milton Keynes has even arranged for the raffle of a £22,000 Renault Clio E-Tech on deadline day to persuade unvaccinated staff. Chairman Neil Russell says he has also arranged for an NHS vaccine bus to come to his facility to persuade carers, but is now forced to admit that the seven per cent of his 600 staff refusing the jab are not going to budge and will fall foul of the new rules.

Among them is Delma Merrifield, a 42-year-old who has worked for one of the PJ Care homes in Milton Keynes since the beginning of the pandemic as a healthcare assistant and activities champion. She is a single mother with a 10-year-old daughter who started work at the home after her health and social care degree at the University of Bedfordshire moved online during the pandemic.

Delma Merrifield
Delma Merrifield

“Some friends of mine have had blood clots and reactions to it and when you hear all these things you do get a bit scared,” she says. “And also I just don’t like the idea of being forced. It should be a choice. I want to do it when I decide, not because the Government suddenly says I can’t do my job unless I have the injection.”

She also points out that a few weeks ago she contracted a mild case of Covid-19, so in all likelihood already has antibodies in her body.

Like Michiala Davies she has no exit plan for how she will support her family. Perhaps she will work bar shifts, she wonders, or go on benefits? She is more preoccupied with the burden her absence will place on those she cares for.

“You are with them 12 hours a day and they become like your family,” she says. “Especially because they have been separated from their own families. I love my job and caring for someone that really needs my help.”

Such is the feared staffing exodus as a result of the new rules that many care home managers admit they may be required to break the law in order to keep on unvaccinated staff – or contravene existing regulations on providing an appropriate level of care.

Mike Padgham, the 65-year-old managing director of Saint Cecilia’s Care group, which runs four homes across Scarborough, is one of those currently grappling with the implications of keeping on unvaccinated staff.

Care home owner Mike Padgham - Charlotte Graham
Care home owner Mike Padgham - Charlotte Graham

A total of four out of 164 members of staff are still refusing jabs despite his best efforts to persuade them otherwise. Collectively, they have decades of care experience between them and he admits their departure would place intolerable pressure across his care homes where he is already struggling to fill 10 vacancies.

In recent days he has even been forced to write to the families of residents to see if any might volunteer to assist in menial roles should staffing levels become critical. “In 32 years of social care that is the first time I’ve been forced to do that,” he admits.

Currently Padgham is looking to redeploy his unvaccinated staff members to community day care roles – something which doesn’t come under the new Government requirements – but also admits that in the case of emergencies he may be forced to bring them back inside the home wearing enhanced PPE, to guarantee the needs of residents are met.

“It’s possible we could be fined and worse still lose our registration,” he says. “But for us the resident is at the centre of everything we do. I agree vaccination is also important but if you get into a corner where you are facing no staff or a non-vaccinated member of staff – surely the least worst option is the unvaccinated staff member, if you try and protect them.”

His staff, he admits, are “heartbroken” at being forced out of the jobs they love. Back in Devon it is the same for Michiala Davies as she contemplates her last day at the care home where she has worked for four and a half years, bidding farewell to the residents and colleagues she calls her “work family” and an industry she has worked in since leaving school aged 16.

“I can’t even put into words what that will do to me,” she says. “I won’t have a leaving party. I just want to walk away and not be reminded of what I have given all those years.”

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