Following concerted pressure from multiple medical bodies, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has announced that the COVID vaccine mandate, under which all patient-facing NHS staff would have to be fully jabbed by April 1st or risk being fired, has been effectively stood down.
After a meeting of a COVID cabinet committee today to seek approval for abandoning the policy, Mr Javid told the House of Commons that the landscape had changed significantly, with the Omicron variant proving less severe than Delta.
"The risk of presentation to emergency care or hospital admission with Omicron is approximately half of that for Delta," he said. "Given these dramatic changes, it is not only right, but responsible, to revisit the balance of risks and opportunities that guided our original decision last year."
Mandate 'No Longer Proportionate'
He added: "It is no longer proportionate to require vaccination as a condition of deployment through statute."
The Government will now launch a consultation on ending the mandate in heath and all social care settings and, subject to responses and parliamentary approval, “the Government will revoke the regulations”, he said.
Even before the announcement, the move was widely regarded as a done deal, with the HSJ this morning describing the policy as a “shambles” and saying that “senior NHS sources” had confirmed to the journal that it would be scrapped.
Patricia Marquis, Royal College of Nursing director of England, said: "This climbdown by government has come too late for those social care staff who have already lost their jobs.
"To risk thousands more nursing staff being sacked in the middle of a staffing crisis was never in the interests of patients’ safety.
"To risk thousands more nursing staff being sacked in the middle of a staffing crisis was never in the interests of patients’ safety."
Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "Our data show that 99% of physicians are vaccinated and we are pleased the government has listened and agreed to a consultation on whether to scrap mandatory requirement. Many social care staff have already had to leave their jobs due to mandatory vaccination demands, and with the vaccination deadline looming we risk thousands more healthcare workers having to leave patient-facing roles. Removing the need for mandatory vaccinations would reduce the risk to patient care that we will undoubtedly see if we lose more staff, and it will improve our ability to respond to urgent and emergency care pressures as well as the backlog created by COVID.
"Further loss of staff is the last thing the NHS can afford when it is already experiencing record numbers of vacancies across health care professions."
The reversal means that the tens of thousands of care staff dismissed as a result of the mandate for care workers that came into force in November may now be free to re-apply for their jobs, if they want to.
Prof Martin Green OBE, chief executive of Care England, which represents care providers in England, said: This policy was imposed upon the home care sector without due consideration or support. Sadly, it has unintended consequences with staff leaving the sector, some to the NHS, thus exacerbating the pre-existing recruitment and retention challenges leading to disruption to the delivery of health and care services."
In a joint statement in response to the announcement, the chief executives of NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, Matthew Taylor and Chris Hopson, said: "NHS leaders are frustrated to have such a significant change in policy at the 11th hour, given all the hard and complex work that has gone into meeting the deadline set by the Government. They recognise the reasons the Government has given for the changes – the risk to services and the different risk from Omicron compared with previous variants."
But, they added: "The Government must ensure clear guidance is quickly made available to support managers to implement this change in approach.
"We are also conscious of the impact this will have on our colleagues working in social care. A large number of staff left their roles when mandatory vaccination became law in the social care sector last autumn. This U-turn will therefore cause similar frustration in social care given the disruption to service delivery that resulted from loss of staff last November."
Prof Green told the i: "I’m angry that we went through this process… we had to go through all the pain of losing good staff.
"I think that it’s really annoying when you’re in residential care and we were used as the guinea pigs for this policy… we lost lots of people who then moved to either homecare or to the NHS," he said.
Resistance to the mandate in the health sector followed unprecedented staffing pressures as a result of the number of staff off sick or forced to isolate after a positive COVID test. The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that Care Quality Commission chief inspector Professor Ted Baker said that hospitals that retained unvaccinated staff would not face sanctions if, after a risk assessment, they decided that it was safer to allow unvaccinated staff to continue working beyond the April deadline if hospital wards would otherwise be dangerously understaffed.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: "There were always two risks to manage here: the risk of COVID cross-infection in healthcare settings and the consequences of losing staff if significant numbers choose not to be vaccinated."
Lead Image Credit: Getty Images