The UK government plans to scrap the requirement for health and social care workers in England to be vaccinated against coronavirus to continue in their roles after a consultation.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons he believes it is “no longer proportionate” to require vaccination as a condition of work.
This, combined with greater population immunity due to the vaccines, means it is “not only right but responsible to revisit the balance of risks and opportunities that guided our original decision last year”, he said.
Mr Javid said the government would seek new advice, including from chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty, and the UK Health Security Agency.
“Subject to the responses and the will of this house, the government will revoke the regulations," he told the House of Commons.
“I have always been clear that our rules must remain proportionate and balanced and, of course, should we see another dramatic change in the virus, it would be only responsible to review this policy again.”
Ministers have been facing pressure to delay the requirement for health workers in England to be double vaccinated by April, amid fears it will lead to a major staffing crisis.
The requirement for care home staff to have two doses came into force last November, with one charity accusing the government of using the sector as “the trial run for the NHS”.
Mr Javid said everyone working in health and social care has a professional duty to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
But he acknowledged there would always be some who would walk away from their jobs over being forced to be vaccinated.
“We have to consider the impact on the workforce in NHS and social-care settings, especially at a time when we already have a shortage of workers and near full employment across the economy," Mr Javid said.
While the government is seeking to end the legal mandate, he has written to health regulators asking them to urgently review guidance to on vaccinations “to emphasise their professional responsibilities in this area”.
Mr Javid also asked the National Health Service to review its policies on hiring new staff and posting current staff, taking into account their vaccination status.
The chief executives of the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, Matthew Taylor and Chris Hopson, said leaders were “frustrated” at the 11th-hour policy change as they and their teams raced to meet the February 3 deadline for first doses.
“They recognise the reasons the government has given for the changes, the risk to services and the different risk from Omicron compared to previous variants," they said in a statement.
“But there will be concern at what this means for wider messaging about the importance of vaccination for the population as a whole.”
The pair said the about-turn would cause similar frustration for the care-home sector “given the disruption to service delivery that resulted from loss of staff last November”.
The Homecare Association said it was pleased that there would be a consultation because it had always opposed mandatory vaccination.
“We need immediate clarity, however, about the short-term implications given that the deadline for the first dose of vaccine is this Thursday, February 3, and employers are poised to start dismissal procedures with unvaccinated staff," the association said.
“Indeed, some employers have already initiated dismissal processes where employees have notice periods of three months, which is more common for live-in care.”
In a letter to NHS trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups, NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard asked employers not to serve notice of termination to employees affected by the regulations.
Prof Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, a charity representing care providers, said: “This policy was imposed upon the care-home sector without due consideration or support.
“Sadly, it has had 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 our response to the consultation to the second tranche of making vaccination a condition of deployment in the health and wider social care sector, Care England appealed for lessons to be learnt from the legislation process around regulations for care-home staff.
“These were not taken on board. Care homes have been the scapegoat and whilst the government claims that health and social care are the same system, it is clear that they are operating under different standards.
"Once again, social care is the poor relation.”