The requirement for NHS workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is being "kept under review", the Health Secretary has said.
Sajid Javid said that it was "right" to reflect on COVID-19 policies when asked about mandatory vaccines for NHS workers in England.
He said that plans for compulsory jabs for frontline workers were made when the Delta variant of the virus was the dominant strain in the UK, but now "almost all" cases are the Omicron variant, which is "intrinsically less severe".
But he said that frontline NHS staff should get a COVID-19 jab as a "professional duty".
Mr Javid said that patient safety was the principle behind the decision to make jabs mandatory.
He also said that while 95% of NHS staff have had at least one jab, 77,000 staff in England are yet to be vaccinated.
"I think it is right, in light of Omicron, that we reflect on all this and keep all COVID policies properly under review because Omicron is different to Delta, equally we don’t know what the next variant is going to be, but we are reflecting on all this," he told the Health and Social Care select committee of MPs.
Calls for 'Urgent Impact Assessment' of how Policy Will Affect Staffing
Both the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Nursing have called for a delay to the policy, which will require all frontline staff to be double jabbed by April 1 as a condition of their employment.
The British Medical Association has called for an "urgent impact assessment" on how the policy will affect staffing numbers.
In order for staff to meet the requirement they will have needed their first vaccine by February 3.
On Monday, the Department of Health and Social Care said there are no plans to change the policy, after a number of reports suggested ministers were considering an 11th-hour delay.
Asked about the issue, Mr Javid said it is the "professional duty of every NHS worker to get vaccinated".
"Since the mandate, since we announced a consultation in September, we’ve had around 100,000 in the NHS that were unvaccinated at that point that have come forward. So there’s been a very good response," he added.
"I think now it’s almost 95% of NHS workers that have had at least one jab. The latest numbers I have is that around 77,000 that have not. That is improving every day.
"I think it’s also reasonable to assume that not everyone ultimately is going to come forward."
He added that some of the unvaccinated staff would be in back office roles and not subject to the policy.
Pressed on the issue, the Health Secretary said patient safety was the principle behind the decision to make jabs mandatory, but noted that it was decided when Delta was the dominant variant.
He said: "That was the principle and we weighed it up. The dominant variant at the time was Delta, that was the dominant variant. The dominant variant now, in fact almost all cases, are Omicron."
He said people had "made representations" to him about Omicron being "very different" to Delta, in that while the former is more transmissible it is "intrinsically less severe".
Living with COVID
Meanwhile, Mr Javid told the committee that people should learn to live alongside Covid-19 "like we do for the flu".
He also said that the "living with COVID plan" for the UK, which will be published in the spring, will set out how the UK plans to deal with new variants and how the NHS will plan for "surge capacity" as and when it is needed.
Mr Javid said: "We’ve got to find a way to live with it (COVID) in the same way, let’s say, we live with flu, you know, and I’m not for a second sort of saying it’s like flu, you know, look at sadly all the deaths we’ve had from COVID – over 150,000 from the start.
"It’s about understanding we do now have defences which we didn’t have before and just as sort of flu doesn’t stop society and stop life, we mustn’t let COVID do that any more."
Need for Plans to Tackle Backlog and A&E Waiting Times
Mr Javid was also asked by MPs about comments by former NHS boss Lord Stevens, who accused the Government of "wilful blindness" over the need for better workforce planning in health and social care.
Mr Javid said he agreed on "the importance he (Lord Stevens) attaches to the workforce and the need for a long-term plan on the workforce".
But he added: "The bit I wouldn’t agree with is the sort of idea that there’s no… the Government doesn’t have a plan to deal with these workforce pressures."
He also said the NHS was considering "radical plans" to tackle the backlog of care built up during the pandemic.
Mr Javid also hinted that he might change the four-hour A&E target, whereby the majority of patients should be seen, treated or admitted within four hours of arriving at A&E.
"The 4-hour A&E target is the wrong target. It doesn’t work. It leads to really perverse outcomes," Mr Javid said.
Meanwhile he said that GP access would improve and suggested that some access problems were due to GPs leading the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
This article contains information from PA Media
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