Thirty-four midwives in one maternity unit are among 73,000 National Health Service staff who risk being struck off when Covid-19 vaccinations become mandatory for frontline health workers in England on April 1.
One member of the group of midwives said her colleagues come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and age groups and have different reasons for refusing to be inoculated against the virus.
The woman, Nia, broke down in a radio interview as she revealed her fears of being sacked from her “vocation” of midwifery and urged Health Secretary Sajid Javid to reconsider the rule.
About 6 per cent of NHS health workers are estimated to be unvaccinated.
The Royal College of Nursing, which recommends its members be vaccinated, has urged ministers to hold fire on their plan due to the chronic staffing shortages facing hospitals.
In December, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said that at one hospital trust in England, up to 40 midwives were refusing to receive the vaccine. This raised fears the unit could be forced to close in the coming months.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme, Nia, who has worked as a midwife for 23 years, said it is more than a role — “it’s who I am” — and she “cannot imagine doing anything else”.
She declined to give her surname and the name and location of the hospital she works at was not revealed. She said there are 37 unvaccinated midwives in her healthcare trust, 34 of whom are in her unit.
Her reasons for refusing the vaccine are because she does not see herself as vulnerable, given that she has antibodies, and that she fears possible side effects.
After contracting Covid-19 in March 2020, she enrolled in a programme for health workers in England which offers fortnightly tests for antibodies. She claims tests show she still has antibodies and is therefore protected against the virus.
She also said she began a 12-month course of medical treatment for an unspecified illness in 2020 and when the vaccines were first introduced, the government advised people in her category not to be inoculated.
Nia argued that she is “absolutely not” against vaccines but believes each person should be allowed to decide what they think is best for them.
“Vaccinations are a medical treatment which bring with them risk of side effects, and where there’s risk — no matter how small — there must be a choice,” she said.
“The mandate is robbing us of our bodily autonomy.
“Threatening to remove our livelihood if we don’t have the vaccine is not pre-consent.”
Nia said in light of data that shows vaccination reduces a person’s chance of serious illness if they contract Covid-19, she recommends a coronavirus vaccine for anyone in a vulnerable category, including expectant mothers.
She added her unit is down by 30 per cent of staff some days and that the problem would be much worse if unvaccinated people were not allowed to treat patients.
“I think the unit and midwifery services all over the country could well collapse,” she predicted. “It’s a real concern.
“I’m witnessing the worst staffing crisis of my entire career.”
She urged Mr Javid and his fellow ministers to rethink the policy.
Mr Javid has also been urged by the Royal College of Nursing, the trade union for UK nurses, to put his plan on hold.
This is due to major staff shortages faced by the National Health Service, the UK's publicly funded healthcare system, amid the continuing pandemic.
Prof Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said Nia was only “half right” in saying her antibodies are protecting her against Covid-19.
He said the antibodies acquired by her following her March 2020 infection will be “substantially lower today” and would offer an “equally low” degree of protection against the virus.
Prof Jones said from scientific studies carried out over the past year, it has become clear that even if a person has antibodies, they can still be infected and “act as a source of virus for someone else”.
“To lessen that chance, what you need is the highest level of antibody possible.”
He disputed Nia’s argument that she does not need a vaccine because she does not consider herself to be in a vulnerable category.
Prof Jones said vulnerability refers to how sick you are likely to become from an infection but has “very little to do with whether you can harbour the virus, multiply the virus and pass it on to someone else”.
Helen Donovan, a nurse from the Royal College of Nursing who has been vaccinating people against Covid-19, called on the government to pause its mandatory vaccination plan.
She said health bosses should be given the opportunity to discuss vaccination with unvaccinated workers, rather than being forced to dismiss them.
“What we’re saying is having the vaccine but have those conversations with people to support them in making the decision rather than having this mandate,” Ms Donovan said.
But she stressed that while the College wanted to see the rule postponed, it continues to urge health workers to be inoculated.
The government’s own impact assessment shows 73,000 NHS staff in England could be lost if vaccination becomes mandatory.
Mr Javid is coming under increasing pressure to drop the plan.
Last week, during a visit to a hospital, he was challenged by an unvaccinated doctor who said he was unhappy about the coming rule.
The doctor argued that the science is not strong enough to make vaccinations mandatory for health workers.