In a move that will likely ignite fresh debate over the scope of employment rights, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has announced plans to introduce compulsory covid-19 vaccinations for carers working with elderly residents.
The DHSC has launched a five-week consultation which will consider a requirement for care homes to deploy only staff who have been inoculated against covid-19, so as to protect vulnerable older people. Care homes for younger disabled and other vulnerable adults will not be included in the plans.
Experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advise that 80% of staff and 90% of residents need to be vaccinated to provide a minimum level of protection against outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. However, only 53% of older adult care homes in England are meeting targets.
This means up to 150,000 care home residents are at an increased risk of catching the virus, according to DHSC, which also warned that the current staff vaccination rate is below 80% in 89 local authority areas and across all 32 London boroughs. There are 27 local authority areas with a staff vaccination rate below 70%.
Earlier this month, the Italian government approved the mandatory inoculation of healthcare workers due to an entrenched anti-vaccination movement.
“Making vaccines a condition of deployment is something many care homes have called for, to help them provide greater protection for staff and residents in older people’s care homes and so save lives,” said Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.
“The vaccine is already preventing deaths and is our route out of this pandemic. We have a duty of care to those most vulnerable to covid-19, so it is right we consider all options to keep people safe.”
The DHSC says it will seek views on its proposal, including its scope, potential impacts on staffing levels and health and safety issues, as well as possible exemptions for some workers, such as those with medical conditions.
Forcing workers to get the jab will harm trust and employee relations. And it may be discriminatory, leaving employers open to legal challenge
Some care providers, including Barchester Healthcare, which runs over 200 care homes across the UK, have already implemented similar policies to those proposed by the government.
Dr Pete Calveley, chief executive of Barchester, said his company’s decision to introduce a mandatory vaccination policy was not taken lightly, but the safety of residents was the primary concern.
“It is a professional duty for care home staff to accept the vaccine unless there is a medical reason they should not,” he said. “As time has progressed, the safety, efficacy, and transmission-reduction evidence have become ever stronger, which supports our initial view.”
Unions, however, have called the government’s plan “ill-thought-through” and a further blow to care workers’ morale.
“Care workers have had a raw deal during this pandemic,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. “While they’ve risked their lives to care for our loved ones, they’ve been rewarded with inadequate PPE, ongoing poverty pay, and no action on zero-hours contracts in the care sector.
“We all want to get as many care workers vaccinated as possible. But forcing workers to get the jab will harm trust and employee relations. And it may be discriminatory, leaving employers open to legal challenge,” she added.
O’Grady instead urged ministers to “strongly encourage” care workers to get vaccinated and make it as easy as possible for them to do so.
“That means giving care workers paid time off for the appointments and taking away any financial worries by guaranteeing decent sick pay for any recovery time afterwards.”