BBC News: By Mary O’Connor & Marie Jackson – COVID vaccinations are to become compulsory for staff in care homes for older people in England, the BBC has been told.
Workers are expected to be given 16 weeks to have the jab or face being redeployed away from front-line care or potentially lose their job.
Care bosses are currently attending a virtual meeting with the Department of Health to discuss the plans.
The move is set to be announced by the government in the next few days.
Consultations will begin on a similar rule for other health and care staff.
Care organisations have warned that compulsory vaccinations could cause significant difficulties in a sector that already struggles to recruit enough people.
The government, however, is believed to have considerable concerns about low take-up of the vaccine in some areas, including London.
A Whitehall source told the BBC: “These moves would save lives and there is precedent with the Hepatitis B vaccine guidance for doctors.”
Workers who can prove they are medically exempt from getting the vaccine will not be affected.
The move in England follows a consultation by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), launched in April, two months after the government said it had met its target of offering all front-line care workers a first dose of a vaccine by mid-February.
At the time, it said 47% of English care homes for older people had more than a fifth of staff yet to take up the vaccine, despite staff at all eligible care homes having been offered vaccines, with the vast majority of homes having had repeat visits by vaccine teams.
Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director for Covid-19 at Public Health England, said there are “pros and cons to any debate on mandatory vaccination”, with the “pro” being that those caring for the most vulnerable in care homes would be vaccinated, thus minimising the risks to residents.
She said a possible downside could be that “people may vote with their feet, and not want to have the vaccine, and therefore not work in a care home, and that could lead to staff supply issues in care homes”.
Dr Hopkins said there had been “excellent uptake” of the vaccine, adding: “I think where people are hesitant, we need to work harder to make them understand why the vaccines work.”
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the government’s announcement of its decision on mandatory vaccination for care home staff was “very imminent”.
She told BBC Breakfast: “We need to make sure we get the balance right but I’m sure people appreciate that protecting lives is the absolute priority.”
Ms Truss refused to be drawn on whether mandatory vaccination could be extended to other settings.
The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, warned compulsion was “a blunt instrument that carries its own risks”.
It added: “While some healthcare workers are already required to be immunised against certain conditions to work in certain areas, any specific proposal for the compulsory requirement for all staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19 would raise new ethical and legal implications.”
Mike Padgham, chairman of the Independent Care Group (ICG) which represents care homes in Yorkshire, said he was disappointed by the decision and concerned it could cause legal disputes for providers.
He told the Today programme: “People should be vaccinated, every member of staff should take up the vaccine, but I just think persuasion rather than coercion or compulsion is the way to deal with it.”
Mr Padgham said the sector already had a “recruitment crisis”, saying: “We’re frightened that this is going to put more people off coming into social care and that’s going to be difficult.”
‘It feels unfair just to target care workers’
Susan Lord, whose mother lives in a care home in Leeds, said whilst it was “great” staff in the home had been vaccinated, she was “concerned” by the idea of mandatory jabs targeted solely at care workers.
Ms Lord, from High Wycombe, told BBC News: “If someone has been working in care for years and isn’t able to have the vaccine or has strong objections to having it, it seems a little bit unfair that they’re going to lose their job”.
She added: “There are other people who go into care homes, there are a lot of NHS visitors for example.
“It seems a little bit odd that we’re asking the care home workers themselves to be vaccinated, whilst at the same time a lot of people go in who are not required to be vaccinated, who are probably more likely to be spreading the virus because they’re visiting sick people in a variety of settings.
“Most care home workers are just working in one care home… and they’re regularly tested, it just seems a little bit harsh.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK said: “Every care home resident would want to be cared for by someone who had been vaccinated, but if a compulsory approach leads to some care workers quitting it will make existing chronic staff shortages even worse.”
“With or without mandatory vaccination,” she said an approach of “peer-to-peer persuasion” should be taken in care homes, “because this approach has been found to work well”.
Kelly Andrews, national care lead of the GMB union and a former care worker told BBC News: “We should not have forced vaccinations in social care, this is pushing the workforce away from social care in an area that we’re already struggling to recruit and retain”.
In a survey of about 1,000 of its carers, the GMB said, more than a third indicated they would quit their jobs if vaccines were mandated.
Low uptake among care home staff was a big concern when the vaccine programme was launched – similar issues are seen with the annual flu jab.
Efforts have been made to convince staff of the need to get vaccinated – there have been advertising campaigns targeting them, webinars held by health leaders and repeat visits made to homes by vaccination teams.
There are plenty of places where there has been good uptake.
But there are also significant numbers of places where fewer than 80% of staff have been vaccinated – the threshold deemed essential to keep the virus out if 90% of residents are also vaccinated.
Those working in the sector say there are a variety of reasons staff have cited – cultural reasons and concerns about safety. One common issue has been (unfounded) worries about its impact on fertility as the workforce is young and predominantly female.
This move raises lots of concerns from individual rights to its potential to force staff out from a sector that is already short of workers.
But the counter argument is that the vulnerabilities of residents and the closed environments they live in require drastic action.
In the care sector in England there have been more than 40,000 deaths involving Covid.
Meanwhile, nearly 42 million people in the UK have received their first dose of a vaccine so far, and just over 30 million have had their second.
Almost one million people aged 21 and 22 are now able to book their jab in England and the target to offer all adults a first dose of a vaccine has been brought forward to 19 July.
Some 972,000 text messages will be sent out inviting people to make appointments for both vaccine doses via the national booking system, leaving only 18 to 20 year-olds yet to be invited.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said on Tuesday he expected that all those over the age of 18 would be able to book “by the end of this week”.
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