The cry from providers of care home services to impose compulsory vaccinations for staff in care homes has not gone unnoticed by the government.
At the heart of the matter is the risk to service users who are being cared for by staff who have not been vaccinated and therefor susceptible to the virus.
As part of a five-week consultation, launched on 14 April, the Department of Health and Social Care will look at requiring care home providers to only deploy workers who have received their COVID jab.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said making vaccines a condition of deployment was “something many care homes have called for” and that “we have a duty of care to those most vulnerable to COVID-19, so it is right we consider all options to keep people safe”.
The yes campaign
According to social care working group SAGE, 80 per cent of staff and 90 per cent of residents need to be vaccinated to provide a minimum level of protection against outbreaks of coronavirus. However, the figures suggest only 53 per cent of older adult homes in England are currently meeting this threshold.
The move has been welcomed by some in the sector, including Dr Pete Calveley, chief executive of Barchester Healthcare – which introduced a vaccination requirement for its staff – who has “strongly encouraged” other providers to support the proposal.
Calveley said the decision to make vaccinations compulsory for all employees, apart from some exemptions, was “not lightly introduced” but that “providing safe care for those we care for is our paramount obligation”.
“It is a professional duty for care home staff to accept the vaccine unless there is a medical reason they should not,” he added.
The no campaign
However, experts critical of mandatory vaccinations warn that such policies could damage employee relations and potentially leave employers open to legal challenges. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, branded the consultation as “ill-thought through” and “a further blow to care workers’ morale”.
“We all want to get as many care workers vaccinated as possible; forcing workers to get the jab will harm trust and employee relations,” O’Grady said, adding that ministers should instead strongly encourage every care worker to get vaccinated and make it as easy as possible. This could mean giving paid time off for appointments and guaranteeing sick pay for any recovery time afterwards.
Alan Price, CEO of Bright HR, agreed, adding: “While it is likely that some form of mandatory vaccination policy will be implemented in this sector, it remains to be seen how this will be approached.”
Concerns about a mandatory policy
Price also noted that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UK’s equality watchdog, has already raised concerns that the proposed introduction of a COVID status certification scheme, also known as vaccine passports, could lead to unlawful discrimination against people who have not or cannot be vaccinated.
He said: “Operators in the care industry would be wise to wait for further word from the government before introducing such a policy. Employers outside of this industry should approach this even more carefully; such a policy may be difficult to justify outside of the care sector and be potentially discriminatory.”
Beverley Sunderland, managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors argues that because the vaccine, is not yet available to those under 40 and not recommended for some groups, including those who are pregnant, warns of the potential discrimination claims that could arise from putting a mandatory jab policy in place. “Immediately you are discriminating against young people and pregnant women,” she says.
She also points out that people who do not believe in immunisations are likely protected under the philosophical beliefs section of the Equality Act and potentially under the European Convention of Human Rights too.
The debate about the compulsory vaccination of care home staff will not go away sometime soon. Providers may well consider carefully the introduction of a compulsory vaccination policy before the government arrives at its findings.
I have always believed that care homes have a special place in this debate. The issue clearly is the duty of care required of care home staff. As opposed to the discrimination against people who do not believe in immunisations. These people are likely protected under the philosophical beliefs section of the Equality Act and potentially under the European Convention of Human Rights.
Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy