Mandatory Covid jabs for health and social care workers in England will be scrapped on 15 March, Sajid Javid has said, as he confirmed staff will no longer be required by law to get vaccinated.
The rules came into force for care home staff in November, and had been due to be introduced for frontline NHS and wider social care staff in regulated settings from 1 April.
The policy met fierce resistance from some workers, with warnings that sacking those who did not comply would worsen the already serious staffing crisis engulfing health and care services. Several MPs had also criticised the decision.
Javid, the health secretary, said earlier this year that he believed it was “no longer proportionate” to require vaccination as a condition of deployment under law. On Tuesday he confirmed the regulations in health and social care would be revoked, and said the rules would end on 15 March.
The development immediately raised the question of whether care workers who may have left their jobs could return. Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, said Javid’s announcement had come too late to repair the “huge” damage done to the care sector.
“Staff have already left residential care services and found new jobs in the NHS and home care,” he told the Guardian. “I seriously doubt we are going to see lots of them coming back.”
Javid said that when the original decision was taken to make it a legal requirement, Delta was the dominant variant of the virus but that had since been replaced by the less severe Omicron.
However, he added that despite the change, he still considers it “a professional responsibility for health and care staff, and others who work in the health and social care sectors, to be vaccinated”.
The government said 90% of responses to a public consultation launched last month supported the removal of the legal requirement. The consultation received more than 90,000 responses from across the health and social care sector, as well as from members of the public, Javid told MPs.
He said 92% of the NHS workforce and 95% of care home staff had received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 89% of home or domiciliary care staff had so far taken at least one dose.
He added that the government was “committed to working with the health and social care sectors to engage with those who are yet to make the positive choice to be vaccinated”.
The Guardian understands ministers are working closely with the medical royal colleges and health professional regulators to strengthen guidance on the prevention and control of infections.
The decision was welcomed by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), while Unison said many staff who left care homes due to the requirement were unlikely to return to their jobs.
The RCN general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said the change was the “right decision”, adding: “Holding the threat of losing their jobs over the heads of the small minority of staff who had not been vaccinated was the wrong approach and this decision will be welcomed by those whose jobs were at risk.”
But she said it had come “too late for those who have already lost their jobs”. She added: “Ministers must now urgently address the health and social care workforce crisis which is undermining nursing staff’s ability to care safely for their patients. There are tens of thousands of nursing vacancies across those services.”
Gavin Edwards, the head of care at Unison, said: “There were always better ways of upping the jab rate in care. Making the vaccine mandatory meant thousands of experienced staff quit care homes. These were workers the struggling sector could ill afford to lose.
“Many won’t go back either. They have found better paid, less stressful work elsewhere. Ministers could go some way towards making up for the distress caused by ensuring every care worker is paid at least the real living wage. That would begin to solve the current staffing crisis.”
• This article’s headline was amended on 2 March 2022 to more accurately reflect the text.