Mandatory vaccine plan for health workers in Britain's NHS could be scrapped after Omicron

Variant’s mild nature leaves ‘space’ to rethink policy

The UK Government is keeping its mandatory vaccination policy for healthcare workers in England under review. (Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)
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The British government has hinted it is reconsidering mandatory vaccination for National Health Service and other workers, amid mounting pressure to abandon the policy.

About 80,000 healthcare staff in England stand to lose their jobs if the rule is introduced as planned in April

The Royal College of Nursing said “it makes no sense” to risk losing thousands of qualified, experienced workers for the sake of such a policy.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke said the government had been keeping the policy under review and said the milder nature of the Omicron variant “does open a space” for change.

Last autumn, as the Delta strain was spreading rapidly across the country and causing hospital admissions to rise, ministers announced a plan to make vaccines for healthcare workers compulsory.

Under the plan, staff must have their first vaccine doses by February 3 and they must be double vaccinated before the policy takes effect on April 1.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid will this week decide whether to push  forward with mandatory vaccinations for health workers. PA

“What we know about Omicron is that it is much more transmissible but less severe,” Mr Clarke told Sky News. “Any decision taken this week will reflect that reality.”

However, he stressed that the “stark reality” is “if you are not vaccinated then obviously you do pose more of a threat both to yourself, your colleagues and your patients”.

“Obviously, when it comes to Omicron and the fact that the virus has mutated, we continue to monitor the impact of wider policy,” he said.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has been facing pressure to abandon the requirement for health workers in England to be vaccinated by April amid fears it will lead to a major staffing crisis.

Mr Javid will meet ministers on the Covid-Operations Cabinet committee on Monday to confirm the about turn, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Asked about reports that there could be an about turn on the policy, Mr Clarke said: “This is a policy we have always kept under review.

“We’ve been trying to strike, throughout this pandemic, the right balance between having the maximum impact in terms of measures that support public safety in the face of the virus, but also have the minimum impact in terms of our wider freedoms as a society.

“It is in that context that a decision was made last autumn to make sure we went ahead with the mandatory vaccination policy, and that was because we had the Delta variant, extremely dangerous, which took a huge toll on our society and we wanted to make sure that people going into hospital – very vulnerable people, whether they had Covid or another condition that required treatment – weren’t going to be faced with an increased risk of infection on the wards.

“We continue to monitor that situation very closely. What we know about Omicron is it is much more transmissible but less severe. Any decision that is taken this week will reflect that reality.

“I can’t prejudge the decision that is going to be made but obviously we do recognise those realities, and that does open a space where we can look at this again.”

The Royal College of Nursing has urged Boris Johnson’s government to “urgently” rethink its policy for NHS workers.

Earlier this month it emerged that 34 midwives in one unit in England were unvaccinated.

Patricia Marquis, the college’s director for England, said if the plan was not abandoned, patients would be put more at risk by a lack of staff than being exposed to unvaccinated workers.

“We would say that Covid is still a serious disease and would absolutely urge all nursing staff to get vaccinated, but the situation has changed in that Omicron is serious for those who are unvaccinated but actually overall as a country things have improved,” she told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

“But the most important issue for us right now is the fact that there are so many nursing vacancies already. It makes no sense to risk losing thousands of registered nurses and healthcare support workers from both health and also what’s been lost from social care, which actually puts patients at more risk than not having nurses at all. We think the situation needs to be reviewed urgently and quick decisions need to be made before we start to lose people from the system.”

About 40,000 people lost their jobs when vaccination became mandatory for care home workers.

Nadra Ahmed, chairwoman of the National Care Association, said she was “frustrated” and “saddened for all the people who may have lost their jobs needlessly” owing to the policy.

Speaking on BBC TV, she said compulsory vaccination was an “unnecessary burden”.

“Social care is on its knees and we just do not have people walking through the doors,” she said.

Updated: January 31, 2022, 10:37 AM