Two developments on vaccines in the NHS in quick succession. First, the news that the Government intends to force NHS staff to have both a Covid vaccine and a flu jab or risk losing their jobs. Then, the announcement that it won’t kick in until… April!
At first sight, this simply seems like bad and nonsensical policy.
It has the potential to wreak havoc on an already stretched service. Despite a record uptake, around 25% of NHS staff did not have a flu jab last year; add to that the 116,000 NHS workers who have not yet had a Covid jab, and this has the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of employees.
There has been little discussion about why healthcare workers may be declining vaccination and barely any consideration as to what their motives may be. For those declining the Covid jab, there is also little analysis of whether they have previously been infected. Estimates vary on how many NHS staff have caught Covid (accurate figures are not produced), but it is likely to be in the order of hundreds of thousands.
Even if it was to be brought in instantly, there are many practical reasons as to why a Covid and Flu vaccine mandate would be flawed: it risks discriminating against BAME employees and it can even make the vaccine hesitant less likely to be vaccinated. The common claim that such a requirement would be equivalent to Hep B vaccines is also incorrect, as I outlined here before.
But the fact that its introduction is being delayed until April makes it stranger still. Repeatedly, we have been told that the NHS is on the cusp of its busiest winter ever. And yet, this vaccine mandate only kicks in from April onwards, months after the busiest period. So if the argument is that the vaccine mandate is needed to make the NHS safe, then why is it not necessary it over our busiest winter? And if it is not needed, why coerce staff into getting the vaccine in the first place?
There is, of course, another explanation. Rather like the vaccine passports in settings like nightclubs, that were due to be brought in at the end of September but were then abandoned last minute, the timetabling of these measures gives the Government the chance — the hope, for some cabinet ministers — that it never need actually happen. If the Covid situation is better by then, coercive measures like these can be set aside. In the meantime, it acts as yet another “nudge”, a distant threat to try to get more NHS employees vaccinated.
I’m not a fan of “nudging” as it is coercive, dishonest, goes against basic principles of public health, and risks seriously damaging our trust in authorities. However in this case I’m hoping that’s what it ends up being. The alternative, stripping away the rights of the staff of an organisation that already suffers from a toxic culture, in which a quarter of the staff say they have already been bullied and harassed and three quarters have already said they are considering leaving, is too self-destructive to contemplate.