To cast them all as 'anti-vaxxers' misses the point
It must go down as one of the most powerful images of the pandemic. Nearly two years after rainbows, Thursday night clapping and proclamations to “protect the NHS”, thousands of healthcare workers found themselves taking to the streets to protest against the government plan to sack NHS staff who refuse Covid vaccinations. The march culminated in protestors dumping their uniforms outside Downing Street.
It would be easy to paint this protest as “antivax”, but as I spoke to the NHS staff who were protesting, it became apparent that doing so would be simplistic at best and disingenuous at worst.
While some mentioned their belief in natural immunity, and antibodies in lieu of vaccination, the vast majority of people I spoke to were less concerned about the vaccine itself and more worried about what the mandate represented — not only for themselves, but for their colleagues, and the NHS in general. Many were vaccinated, but chose to stand against the policy in solidarity with their unvaccinated colleagues.
Some, such as Anne, a midwife with 8 years’ service, were worried about the impact on staffing. While she had been vaccinated, she was adamantly opposed to the mandate, explaining: “I don’t want them to sack my colleagues. We are so short-staffed. This will destroy us”.
Her fears are well-founded. Based on the government’s own risk assessment, the NHS is on track to lose 73,000 staff as a result of the mandate. This is against the backdrop of dire staffing levels, with NHS trusts reporting over 100,000 vacancies, including 36,000 nursing vacancies. The policy also comes at a time when there is widespread unhappiness in the NHS, with a survey in October 2021 showing three-quarters of staff had considered leaving in the past 12 months. It seems likely that this mandate will precipitate a significant crisis in staffing.
Few were swayed by the argument that mandating a vaccination for healthcare workers would send a message to the public. Matt, a radiographer argued:
Others were concerned about what kind of precedent this mandate would set. Many feared that it would give the NHS the power to alter employment terms and conditions retrospectively, which could result in them losing their jobs.
But the central theme to have emerged from my conversations with protesters — vaccinated and unvaccinated — was the importance of bodily autonomy and consent. As Alice, an emergency nurse practitioner explained: “It’s about the principle. I cannot advocate for consent for my patients and deny it for myself and my peers”. This sentiment was shared by Dr Steve James in his interview with UnHerd as well.
Many of those I spoke to saw informed consent as a fundamental part of their job. It was the idea of seeing this essential right removed — in some cases for themselves, in others for their colleagues — that had brought them out on this cold January afternoon.
The loss of staff represents more than just a decrease in numbers. In an organisation such as the NHS, doctors and nurses who hold onto these principles, despite the personal cost to themselves, are precious. The fact that their values are so important that they would face smears and criticism, or even leave their jobs, makes these employees the very people the NHS desperately needs to retain.
Perhaps Lucy, a student midwife, summed it up best: “Throughout our training we are taught bodily autonomy and consent is vital. I’m not sure I want to be part of an organisation that will discard that”.
Names of protesters have been changed on their request.