The NHS doctors picking ‘no jab’ over a job

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Consultant anaesthetist Dr Steve James says he's prepared to lose his job in April over his refusal to have the Covid vaccine - Rii Schroer for The Telegraph
Consultant anaesthetist Dr Steve James says he's prepared to lose his job in April over his refusal to have the Covid vaccine - Rii Schroer for The Telegraph

It has been more than a week since Steve James, a consultant anaesthetist at King’s College Hospital in London, first accosted Health Secretary Sajid Javid. During a visit to the hospital in front of assembled colleagues, nervous-looking ministerial aides and media cameras, the 48-year-old told Javid that he would not be vaccinated because he has immunity from being “antibody positive” after exposure to the virus – and therefore would be forced out of his role in April when the new rules mandating all NHS staff be fully jabbed come into force.

While the Health Secretary politely disagreed with James, who has worked at King’s for nearly a decade, he acknowledged he was entitled to his criticism. Despite a public backlash with some angry medics publicly denouncing James as “an anti-vaxx wet dream”, he insists that privately he has been inundated with messages of support. “I’ve had dozens of people say, ‘Well done, thank you’,” he says. “There are lots of doctors and nurses from different trusts who are being forced to resign or being sacked.”

At King’s Hospital alone, its head, Dr Clive Kay, has estimated he is worried the mandatory vaccine policy for healthcare workers could result in the loss of 1,000 staff. Across the NHS, that figure has been put as high as six per cent of the workforce, or more than 80,000 staff.

Watch: Dr Steve James Challenges Sajid Javid On Mandatory Vaccinations

Many of those who stand to lose their jobs during a time of intolerable pressure on the health service stress they are taking the stand not out of an anti-vaxxer position – indeed, those on the frontline have seen more than anyone the huge health benefits the vaccines have delivered in lowering rates of hospitalisation and serious disease – but out of a fear that removing the option of choice sets a dangerous precedent.

The Government insists the vaccine mandate for NHS workers to have at least two doses of the jab is backed up by compelling evidence. When James first spoke to Javid, he claimed “the vaccines are reducing transmission only for about eight weeks with delta”, adding: “For omicron, it’s probably less.”

He has since said he was referring to a study that found a vaccinated a person with Covid was just two per cent less likely than an unvaccinated person to pass it on, 12 weeks after a second AstraZeneca jab, and acknowledged his reference to “eight weeks” was an error.

However, the same study also found people vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine had a 25 per cent lower risk of infecting others than unvaccinated people after 12 weeks.

James raised his concerns with Sajid Javid - PA
James raised his concerns with Sajid Javid - PA

James remains insistent that pushing ahead with the policy in the face of a mass exodus is a blinkered reaction to a climate of fear. “We’ve been through cycles of fear through these lockdowns,” he says. “And I think that’s affected the psyche of people.”

When he leaves King’s, James hopes to remain a clinician and has already made inquiries about working in Ireland. He is also considering jobs in Wales and Scotland where the devolved governments have so far resisted vaccine mandates. Others among James’s colleagues who will be forced to leave the hospital in April have less of an idea about future careers.

Intensive care consultant Milena Chee has tested positive for Covid antibodies, meaning at some point she contracted the virus. She does not know exactly when, but having worked on the frontline since the first days of the pandemic, “when, over a weekend, one patient turned into 30”, she is not surprised.

Chee, who declines to give her age but has been working at King’s since 2013, and within the NHS since 2009, says she has seen “hundreds” of patients succumb to the virus and stresses Covid is an “awful disease”. At the same time, she acknowledges the higher proportion of unvaccinated patients being hospitalised – a figure which Javid claimed was around 70 per cent on the King’s Hospital Covid wards during his visit.

She also disputes any health fears over the vaccine. “I want to underline that the vaccine is safe, and certainly it is much better to be vaccinated,” she says. “What I’m against is the vaccination status to be tied to employment rights. I’m against the language of hatred, which is rampant. We are supposed to be such a tolerant society, but all of a sudden have become the complete opposite.”

As the sole breadwinner in her family, with her partner a stay-at-home husband looking after their 11-year-old son, she admits leaving the job she loves comes at a high personal price.

“I do not have a job lined up after April,” she says. “This is a source of enormous anxiety for me and my family. Not only will I lose a job I absolutely adore and one I’m very good at, but I’m not sure how I will move forward at the moment.”

Elsewhere in the NHS, colleagues have reportedly started wearing purple ribbons on their uniforms to demonstrate their opposition to the policy of mandatory vaccinations.

When former Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced in March 2021 that care home workers would be mandated to have Covid vaccinations (a policy that came into force in November), he stressed there was a “clear precedent” for the ruling as NHS staff who come into contact with the blood of patients are already required to have a vaccination for Hepatitis B. While this policy is enforced by NHS trusts across England, it is not a legal ruling.

Many of those now refusing to have a Covid jab have previously had their Hepatitis B vaccination and seasonal flu jabs and say the two are not comparable as the latter are not enshrined in law.

Among them is Dr Simon Fox, a 41-year-old consultant in infectious diseases currently working across NHS trusts in the South East, who has spent 15 years in the NHS.

He contracted the virus working on Covid wards in the early days of the pandemic and, though he was “bad for a week”, avoided being hospitalised. He has also cared for colleagues left “extremely ill” with the virus. “I haven’t lost any colleagues, but I know of people who have succumbed,” he says.

He stresses it is not the vaccine he is opposing (he advised his elderly parents to have Covid jabs), but the mandate. Indeed, he argues far from persuading reluctant staff to have their jabs, the policy will in fact fuel anti-vaxxer sentiment.

“What they have done by being so coercive on vaccines and ramming it down people’s throats is making people extremely sceptical and suspicious,” he says. “It is very hard to undo that.”

Dr Fui Mee Quek says it's likely she will retire when she leaves her practice
Dr Fui Mee Quek says it's likely she will retire when she leaves her practice

Sutton GP Fui Mee Quek has spent a considerable part of her 28-year career persuading reluctant patients to have vaccines. The 57-year-old mother of three, who has worked in the same practice for almost her entire career, says she has always been an advocate of vaccines – but has been reluctant to receive a Covid jab due to a lack of long-term safety data.

She says the feared loss of key NHS workers at a time of widespread staff shortages could have a huge effect on patients. “It’s going to have a massive impact,” she says. “It’s going to devastate the country, and I don’t think people realise it.”

Quek says she will, in all likelihood, retire from her profession when she leaves her practice, and insists she is fully supported by her husband and family. She says she is speaking out publicly on behalf of younger NHS staff with their whole careers ahead of them.

She makes the same point many do, that the same politicians who stood on their doorsteps and applauded NHS workers during the pandemic now seem all too willing to turn their backs on them.

“The people they were clapping for will lose their jobs,” she says. “People who have worked so hard will have to leave.”

Watch: NHS care worker posts tearful video after losing job because she refused vaccine

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