The UK government on Monday announced it will launch a consultation on ending the contentious requirement that all NHS England staff need to be double vaccinated against Covid-19 by the beginning of April.
Confirming the decision in the House of Commons, health secretary Sajid Javid said the original legislation, which passed through parliament in December, was the “right policy at the time”, but two key factors meant the government could revisit the balance of risks and opportunities ”in relation to the ruling.
“The first is that our population as a whole is now better protected against hospitalization from Covid-19. Omicron’s increased infectiousness means that at the peak of the recent winter spike one in 15 people had a Covid-19 infections according to the ONS, ”Javid said.
The second factor was that the dominant variant, Omicron, was intrinsically less severe. When taken together with the first factor it meant “that we now have greater population protection,” he added.
Javid said that while vaccination remained the “best line of defense” against the virus, it was “no longer proportionate” to require the jab as a condition of employment within the health service.
He argued that while the government would always put safety first, it was important to consider the impact of the policy on the NHS and social care workforce “especially at a time where we already have a shortage of workers and near full employment across the economy” .
A total of 77,591 NHS England staff were unvaccinated as of January 23, raising the possibility that about 5 per cent of the workforce might have to be sacked or redeployed to other roles at a time when the health service is facing severe staff shortages.
The effect of the vaccine mandate would be even greater in London, with 8.7 per cent of NHS employees in the capital yet to receive a single dose, according to the latest data.
The deadline for staff to be double vaccinated is currently April 1, in a concession to health leaders worried about losing staff en masse during the exceptionally busy winter period.
Responding to the statement, Labor’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the opposition party supported the move but stressed the importance of continuing to persuade vaccine hesitant people to come forward for their jab.
“Clearly things have now moved on both in terms of our overall levels of infection and in terms of understanding the latest variant,” he said.
In a joint statement, the chief executives of the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers said they were “frustrated to have such a significant change in policy at the eleventh hour given all the hard and complex work that has gone into meeting the deadline set by the government ”.
Matthew Taylor and Chris Hopson said that while they recognized the reasons the government had given for the changes, there would be “concern at what this means for wider messaging” about the importance of vaccination.
They said the U-turn on the policy would cause similar frustration in social care, whose workforce has been bound by a mandatory vaccination requirement since November, “given the disruption to service delivery” that had already resulted from the loss of staff since that date .