Ministers are to go ahead with plans to oblige care home staff to have coronavirus vaccinations as a condition of work and will consult on extending the obligation to NHS workers, Matt Hancock has confirmed.
Speaking in the Commons before MPs overwhelmingly agreed a four-week delay to the final easing of Covid restrictions in England, the health secretary also said such a requirement could in future be extended to seasonal flu vaccines.
“After careful consultation we have decided to take this proposal forward to protect residents,” Hancock said of the care worker plan. “Now, the vast majority of staff in care homes are already vaccinated, but not all, and we know that a vaccine not only protects you but those around you.
“And therefore we will be taking forward the measures to ensure the mandation as a condition of deployment for staff in care homes, and we will consult on the same approach in the NHS in order to save lives and protect patients from the disease.”
Hancock announced plans to legislate to make two doses obligatory for anyone who provides nursing or personal care in a care setting. Workers, visiting NHS staff and hairdressers must also be double jabbed, but visiting family and friends and emergency workers will be exempt.
He also announced a consultation on extending the requirement to NHS and other health care staff, including domiciliary care.
Hancock made the announcement in a speech to open the debate on delaying the reopening measures due on 21 June to 19 July. Despite opposition from some Conservative backbenchers, it passed easily – by 461 votes to 60.
NHS bosses were cautious about the compulsory jab plan. Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which speaks for health service trusts in England, said: “Trust leaders are clear that, if the government does proceed, it will need to fully think through the consequences of mandation, including the need for trusts, if required, to potentially suspend and dismiss staff who refuse to have a vaccination at a time when the NHS already has significant vacancy rates.”
The NHS Confederation, another hospital body, has said bosses were unlikely to welcome mandatory vaccines for staff, and the Royal College of Nursing has also expressed opposition.
Danny Mortimer, the chief executive of NHS Employers, which forms part of the confederation, voiced no direct criticism of the plan, but said implementation would have to be handled sensitively.
Meanwhile the latest UK data showed that as of Wednesday, nine more people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 and there had been a further 9,055 lab-confirmed cases, the highest daily figure since 25 February.
Data from nearly 110,000 swab tests carried out across England between 20 May and 7 June as part of the government’s React study suggests Covid-19 cases are doubling every 11 days, with the highest prevalence in the north-west with one in 670 people infected.
In the Commons, Hancock was asked by the Conservative backbencher Steve Baker, who is a leading member of the Covid Recovery Group, which wants restrictions lifted sooner, why care home staff who did not want the vaccination could not instead have daily lateral flow tests.
The health secretary replied: “We do of course already have significant testing, but it’s a matter of risk. And we know that the vaccine reduces that risk very significantly.”
Addressing scepticism among some Conservative MPs about putting back full reopening in England from 21 June to 19 July, Hancock said there would be no further delay simply to protect members of the public who had not taken up vaccinations.
There was “a material difference” in the state’s obligations towards those who had not yet been offered a vaccine and towards people who had opted not to have one, he said.
“The duty that we have when someone has not been offered the vaccine is greater than the duty we have when somebody has been offered the vaccine, but has chosen not to take it up,” he told MPs.
Arguing for the need for the four-week delay, Hancock said there were 1.2 million people over 50 and 4.4 million over 40 who had not yet had both vaccination doses, most of whom would have by 19 July.
The change was needed because of the arrival of the more transmissible Delta variant, he said. “A new variant has given the virus extra legs – both because it spreads more easily and because there’s some evidence that the risk of hospitalisation is higher than for the Alpha variant, which was of course previously dominant in this country.”