Unions attack 'sinister' plan to force NHS staff to have Covid vaccine

Denis Campbell
·5-min read
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

A government plan to force all NHS and care staff in England to get vaccinated against Covid-19 has been criticised as “sinister” and likely to increase the numbers refusing to have the jab.

Health unions and hospital bosses urged the health service to continue its efforts to persuade its 1.4 million workforce in England to get immunised rather than resorting to compulsion and “bullying” to try to increase take-up.

Downing Street did not dispute a report in the Daily Mail that it was considering making it mandatory for everyone working in health and social care to have the jab as a way of protecting patients.

But the report triggered unease and criticism from key organisations in both sectors.

“Forced vaccinations are the wrong way to go, and send out a sinister and worrying message,” said Christina McAnea, the general secretary of Unison, which represents about 100,000 NHS staff.

“Encouragement and persuasion rather than threats and bullying are key to a successful programme, as ministers themselves have repeatedly indicated. Mandatory jabs are counterproductive and likely to make those who are hesitant even more so. This will do nothing to help health and care sectors that are already chronically understaffed.”

The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, said the move was unnecessary, given the high take-up among medics, and would have “ethical and legal implications”.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council, said 96% of doctors had had at least their first dose of Covid vaccine. “While we still do not have universal coverage among healthcare staff, it would be wrong to draw unfair conclusions about them ‘refusing’ vaccines,” he said.

“Thorough work must be done by employers and government to understand and address the reasons why some staff are yet to be vaccinated. Any proposal for a compulsory requirement for healthcare workers to be vaccinated raises clear ethical and legal implications.”

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) voiced scepticism about the need for enforced take-up. “We continue to encourage all nursing staff to have the vaccine, and we believe that making the vaccine easily available is the best way increase uptake,” said Dame Donna Kinnair, the RCN’s chief executive and general secretary.

“It is inherent within the Nursing and Midwifery Council code that nursing staff take measures to protect their patients and the public against serious illness as a professional responsibility.”

Take-up among nursing staff had been high, with a survey showing that 85% of nurses had received the first of two doses, Kinnair added.

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Ministers are reportedly considering making vaccination mandatory for health and care staff because of evidence that a minority of them, particularly among those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, are choosing not to have a jab.

The Daily Mail reported that refusal to get vaccinated could lead to health and care staff being denied a “vaccine passport”, which – if such a scheme was introduced – could threaten their ability to go abroad or attend sporting, cultural and other mass events in the UK.

Bosses of NHS trusts in England said vaccination should remain voluntary but called for greater efforts to persuade health service personnel to have the jab.

Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts in England, said: “As with the flu vaccine, we would encourage all NHS staff to have a Covid-19 vaccination when they are offered one because of the protection it provides them, their patients, and their families.

“While trust leaders are pleased with the strong uptake of the vaccine amongst staff groups so far, more must be done to address vaccine hesitancy within the workforce and throughout society.

“The most effective way to do this is by giving them the support they need, dispelling myths, and sharing information about the benefits of vaccinations, so that NHS staff choose to have the jab.”

In care homes, the latest NHS data shows that up to almost a third of 466,000 care home workers in England (31%) have not been vaccinated, although around 30,000 of them could not receive the jab because they had had Covid in the last 28 days. The take-up in London is particularly low, with 48% still unvaccinated compared with 25% in the south-west.

Nadra Ahmed, the executive chairman of the National Care Association, said pressure was also growing from some care home customers, with operators reporting that families were asking for assurances that care staff were vaccinated before they decided whether to place their loved one in a facility.

Last week Care UK said it only wanted to hire new staff who had had the vaccine, while Barchester said it wanted all of its staff, including current workers, to have had the jab by 23 April, adding that if they did not they would not be considered for shifts.

However, the NHS figures do not account for jabs delivered in the last fortnight and MHA, the largest provider of not-for-profit care homes, said that, as of Tuesday this week, only 13% of staff in its 90 care homes had not been vaccinated. Its managers have been having one-to-one conversations with people who are expressing concerns, circulating NHS literature on the safety of the vaccine and putting together information videos.

Some young women had raised concerns about the vaccine’s impact on their fertility, while some religious workers had refused, including clusters of Catholic workers, said Emily Knight, MHA’s head of corporate affairs.

Related: NHS staff: how would you feel if a Covid vaccine was compulsory for work?

The NHS has said the vaccines do not affect fertility in women and men and the Vatican has said Catholics can take vaccines that have been developed using cell lines derived from aborted foetuses.

“We are having genuine, honest conversations and really taking concerns seriously,” said Knight, who added that there appeared to be increasing “normalisation” of having the vaccine.

Government sources stressed no decision had yet been taken and the review still had many weeks to run. Ministers are grappling with concerns over some NHS and social care workers rejecting a vaccine for reasons unrelated to health, and employers subsequently threatening only to hire those who have been inoculated.

Watch: Do coronavirus vaccines affect fertility?