The Big Debate
It wasn’t so long ago that many of us joined together in unison to clap for our NHS staff. A small gesture of appreciation for their hard work and dedication that kept our country going during such challenging times. Now, however, it seems the tide has turned. Those same people who we applauded, who sacrificed so much, could now be the ones to leave. Or rather, forced to leave.
From 1st April 2022, it will become mandatory for all NHS staff who have direct contact with patients to be fully vaccinated, unless they are exempt. This means, that all staff will need to have had their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by 3rd February, in order to be fully vaccinated by 1st April. The result, as voted in the House of Commons in December, also applies to those working in private hospitals, community services, general practices or any other health care organisation. At the time, Sajid David, Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “It is critical to patient safety that health and care staff get the jab to protect some of the most vulnerable people who are in their care.”
The move which brings the NHS into line with care homes, was implemented in order to address the 94,000 staff members in the NHS who were currently unvaccinated. The rules are simple: frontline NHS staff in England need to be fully vaccinated if their role involves direct contact with patients. Failure to do so, will result in redeployment. Those that cannot be redeployed, could potentially lose their jobs. Since the mandatory move was made, many nurses have taken up the vaccine, however, according to the Department of Health and Social Care, a staggering 70,000-plus could still lose their jobs.
While we have seen world evidence to show that the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing hospitalisations and reducing the amount of deaths, the mandatory vaccination for NHS staff is an incredibly divisive and emotive debate. With medical organisations such as the RCN continuing to promote the vaccines (with a vast majority of their staff double vaccinated), other unions have accused the government of using coercive techniques, instead of understanding why some nurses remain hesitant. And it’s the hesitancy, as opposed to a flat-out refusal that could be key to understanding this.
There are several reasons why NHS staff appear reluctant to have the COVID-19 vaccine. Staff who have been previously infected with COVID-19 and feel they have some level of immunity, are just as hesitant as those with health issues. Similar to members of the public, the unprecedented speed with which the vaccines were offered before understanding the extent of them has also aroused suspicion. The possible side effects, that could affect fertility, as well as religious beliefs are all factors that need to be addressed.
Arguably, it is the nurses, more than anyone who have witnessed first-hand the devastating affects that this pandemic has had. Not just taking the lives of the people they serve to protect, but their colleagues as well. It is important to understand then, that those who have declined the vaccines have not done so lightly.
“There are very few nurses who have worked through this pandemic and witnessed the worst suffering imaginable, who will refuse the vaccine with ease,” says registered nurse, Lucy Shipton. “I have been qualified for 26 years, but I have never seen so much distress and mental health problems that many of my colleagues have faced over the last two years. Out of the 35 staff in my ward, one nurse has refused the COVID-19 vaccine because she is receiving fertility treatment. She is prepared to leave the NHS and her profession and work elsewhere, rather than have it. Her decision to not have the vaccine has been incredibly difficult.”
“I believe the increased risk is to those nurses who are unvaccinated, rather than to the vaccinated patients,” continues Lucy. “Surely, an exempt or unvaccinated member of staff poses just as much risk of passing on the virus as a vaccinated person. The COVID-19 vaccine reduces the symptoms, but it does not stop the transmission. It’s more beneficial for all vulnerable groups to be vaccinated. We wouldn’t treat an unvaccinated patient any differently than we would a vaccinated one, so why is the new law making it impossible for nurses to do their job, as they have been doing since the pandemic started with many at the forefront of the vaccine rollout.”
KILL OR CURE?
According to GOV.UK, “Ensuring the maximum number of NHS staff are vaccinated will help ensure the most vulnerable patients gain the greatest possible levels of protection against infection. Elderly people, those with disabilities and some seriously ill people in hospital face a higher risk from COVID-19 than the wider population, and are more likely to use health and care services more often.”
“In light of current events, I believe the mandatory law is very wise,” says 73-year-old Martin Richardson. “I have emphysema so clinically, I am vulnerable. I’ve been rushed to hospital twice over the past year alone with breathing difficulties. Knowing I was at such a high risk of getting seriously ill with COVID, made me feel so anxious. The relief I felt when I was offered the COVID-19 vaccine was indescribable. To have some level of protection was wonderful. I find it very strange why some nurses are still reluctant to protect themselves from a disease that has killed so many of their colleagues. The fact that so many will remain unvaccinated by April, and potentially lose their jobs is mind-boggling. Especially when vaccinations are already in place. What’s the difference between having a Hepatitis B vaccine and a COVID-19 one? Having unvaccinated nurses, will only affect the herd immunity of the NHS workforce. I’m extremely grateful to all our nurses and hospital staff, but the safety of patients and to the nurses themselves is absolutely vital. Unity is crucial.”
Whilst vulnerable people like Martin, believe the new mandatory law is a positive step in ensuring the safety and best possible protection for patients and staff, for others it is questionable.
“I am totally opposed to this mandate,” argues 66-year-old Elaine Butler, Exercise Instructor for Older Adults. “Like many nurses, I haven’t had the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I’m just very pro-safety. I know about early treatment protocols and I’m prepared with the appropriate medicines should I need to take them. I take care of my immune system with exercise, good food, supplementation and common sense. I probably have a higher risk of dying in a car accident. The NHS staff who have exercised their human rights to not have the COVID-19 vaccine, have been working tirelessly throughout the last two years, with a high percentage of them having natural immunity which is always the gold standard of immunity. Having the vaccine is a personal choice, not a no jab, no job one. To announce that this mandate won’t happen until April, when the worst of the winter flu, pneumonia, COVID-19 season is over, is rather telling. Either someone is at risk to themselves or their patients, or they’re not. The idea that at the beginning of April these staff suddenly become a risk, well, it makes no sense.”
While it’s clear that the government take their responsibility to improve and protect the NHS very seriously, with their reaffirmed commitment for 50,000 more nurses, along with funding to keep building a bigger and better trained NHS workforce, to dismiss so many NHS staff as a direct result of the new law, has prompted many people to question whether it could end up having the adverse effect.
“With morale already at an all-time low, the new law will simply make the situation far worse than it already is,” says Lucy. “It’s more important to look at the level of PPE the government supplies in order to protect our patients, rather than lose qualified staff. The impact of the new law will put further pressures on staffing levels and that could put the safety of our patients at risk. I’m not sure what the benefit of this mandatory law is.”
TIME IS RUNNING OUT
With the deadline fast-approaching, the RCN is calling on Sajid Javid, to delay the implementation of the impending mandatory deadline in England, citing major staff shortages. Although the College supports the use of COVID-19 vaccines, they do have major concerns that the new law will impact on the services that are already stretched.
“Nothing matters more to a nurse than caring for their patients safety,” said Pat Cullen, RCN General Secretary & Chief Executive. “Right now, our members are telling me they can’t always do that. We’re calling on the government to recognise this risk and delay a move which, by its own calculations, looks set to backfire. To dismiss valued nursing staff during this crisis would be an act of self-sabotage.”
It is clear that concerns are rising. Already a peaceful protest for health workers against the mandatory vaccines, took place over the weekend. But whilst The Department of Health has said there are no plans to delay the mandate, some Conservative MPs recently called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to rethink the policy.
Nobody knows what will happen over the coming weeks, but whatever your view, it’s clear that a patient’s safety is the primary concern for all involved. What the end result will be, or how the new law will impact the NHS, is yet to be determined. But for a patient or an NHS staff member to suffer as a result, would be detrimental to us all.
In light of this blog, we asked members of the public: ‘Do you agree with the NHS mandate – meaning all staff will be required to be double jabbed by 31st March, or face dismissal?’ The results below clearly show an even split in people’s opinion.
By Leah Fielding – 25th January 2022