Senior British medics have reacted with fury against the doctor who confronted Health Secretary Sajid Javid over the vaccine mandate for National Health Service staff amid fears that tens of thousands will lose their jobs over the policy.
Dr Steve James, a consultant anaesthetist on the intensive care ward at King’s College Hospital in London, questioned the government’s policy during Mr Javid’s visit to the hospital on Friday, claiming that “the science is not strong enough” and that he had acquired immunity through infection.
Dr James gave several broadcast interviews at the weekend and took to social media to urge NHS colleagues to “stand up and make your voices heard” if they disagreed with the vaccine mandate.
“I’d like to suggest to those of you who feel you haven’t had a chance to speak up that I’ve just had to do so," he said "Please contact your local media outlets. Write to your executive staff at your hospital.
"Write to [the government’s chief medical adviser Prof] Chris Whitty, write to Boris Johnson, write to Sajid Javid and make your views known. Please stand up and make your voices heard as best as you can.”
But his stance has provoked a backlash from NHS staff across the country.
“I completely disagree with Steve James who told Sajid Javid that he didn’t believe in vaccines – a deluded, irresponsible and dangerous intervention,” said Dr Rich Breeze, an anaesthetist at University Hospital Lewisham.
Thousands of NHS staff took to Twitter with similar messages explaining why they had received both doses and a booster shot.
Many said it was the “single most important thing” they could so to avoid being admitted to intensive care or dying from the virus.
Luton doctor Meenal Viz said she felt uncomfortable listening to Dr James’s views.
“I fear it will set us back,” Dr Viz said. “Dr Steve James was asked about vaccine mandates. He is entitled to give his personal opinions.
"But he didn’t do that. He cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines. Dr James conflated his own Covid experience with an entire population’s.”
One senior figure said Dr James had been “naive and spectacularly unhelpful” by challenging Mr Javid on camera.
“Some of the stuff the guy said was intrinsically selfish: it was about him and his immunisation status when of course the greatest benefit of vaccinating people is to stop the transmission in others,” they said.
“And his grasp of immunology was pretty shabby as well. If you’re boosted you have far greater protection than just having one lot of natural antibodies.
"I do worry about him. He might have quite a rude awakening for someone who’s never put their head above the parapet before. What he said and being amplified so much is an anti-vaxxer’s dream, sadly.
“If I was the government this would harden my resolve to make this happen. Healthcare professionals will not be on the side of angels if they are opposed to vaccination on the one hand and then asking the public to be vaccinated on the other.”
The head of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges said that the row over Dr James’s comments came at a critical time in the pandemic and could lead hesitant staff who were considering getting the shot to change their minds.
“Healthcare professionals are being so welcoming of people who are coming forward for their vaccine,” Prof Dame Helen Stokes-Lampard said.
"There is no stigma or shame in doing so and they will be welcomed warmly by people keen to see colleagues vaccinated and protected – not just for themselves but also the vulnerable people around them.
“This is an unwelcome distraction for the important matter of maximising the uptake of booster doses and we strongly encourage those who have been reluctant so far, for whatever reason, to come forward.
“The worst thing that can happen is that healthcare professionals who were a bit hesitant and considering getting vaccinated will now dig in and not take the opportunity.
“That will create division and distress for many at a time when we might have been able to persuade them. We need to be pulling together not this risks pulling people apart.
“The strength of the NHS has been about the brilliant teams within it and how they work together and support one another, and this sort of situation creates division and discord.
“The vast majority of health professionals are already vaccinated or will have legitimate exemption. For the small percentage that hold out, they will inevitably be redeployed or lose their jobs, which is a great sadness and a great waste."
The Academy, the co-ordinating body for the UK and Ireland’s 23 medical royal colleges and faculties, had been opposed to mandatory shots for NHS staff, calling the move “not sensible or necessary”.
Tens of thousands of NHS staff could lose their jobs if they have not had two doses of the vaccine by April, when the law comes into effect.
Last year, the government decided all NHS staff dealing with patients must have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine by February 3, and two doses by April 2022.
Trusts will be told this week how they should go about dismissing NHS staff who have decided not to be vaccinated.
On Sunday, King’s College Hospital chief executive Dr Clive Kay said the centre could lose 1,000 staff members if they did not get vaccinated.
Dr Kay told the BBC he was “worried” as 10 per cent of about 14,000 workers at the hospital were yet to receive a first dose.
More than 1,000 members of staff could be lost in an “extreme” scenario unless vaccine acceptance within the workforce improves, he said.
“The law is now such that individuals who are not vaccinated, if they can’t be redeployed, will not be able to work in hospitals if they deal with patients,” Dr Kay said.
“We’re having conversations with staff, their line managers are having conversations, we have a helpline where colleagues seek clarification and help.”
The number of unvaccinated staff is higher in London where vaccine hesitancy is stronger than the rest of the country.
Overall, 93.5 per cent of NHS England staff have had at least one dose and 90.7 per cent two doses. The figure for doctors is about 95 per cent.
“It is a real concern that significant numbers of patient facing staff remain unvaccinated,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers.
"Trusts are continuing to work hard to overcome vaccine hesitancy, listening to concerns, and offering clarification and support.
“This respectful and constructive approach has helped to ensure a high uptake, but there is still some way to go, and with the NHS so stretched, even a small number of staff taken off regular frontline duties could jeopardise some services.
“In the coming weeks trusts will redouble their efforts to persuade vaccine hesitant colleagues that it is best for patients, colleagues, loved ones and for themselves to get jabbed and boosted."