Hospital bosses in England want NHS staff to start getting the Covid vaccine urgently because soaring rates of sickness among frontline personnel are threatening to intensify the service’s growing winter crisis.
Doctors and nurses are asking their hospitals to vaccinate them, but are being told they will have to wait until early 2021 because the over-80s and care home staff are the top priority.
Hospital trust chief executives say staff believe their wait to have the jab is unfair, and that they feel let down and exposed to danger because they are dealing with a sharp increase in the number of Covid patients.
Ken Bremner, the chief executive of South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS trust, has called the decision to make NHS staff wait for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine “a kick in the teeth”. Four other bosses, all speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian they backed an immediate rethink by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) of which groups should get it first, to give staff the same priority as the over-80s.
One chief executive said: “Frontline NHS staff should absolutely have been in the first wave [of priority groups] for the added protection this would give to them and, crucially, their patients. There is a growing sense of frustration among staff who feel let down and now a sense of inequity because of the way it’s being distributed.”
Another said: “There is growing disquiet in the NHS about how we have ended up prioritising people at the end of their lives for the vaccine over and above the NHS workers who are actually trying to care for them. It’s very, very odd.”
The resurgence of Covid means already understaffed hospitals are grappling with unusually high absence rates that in some places are leaving hundreds of staff off either sick or isolating. Some are so worried about having too few staff on duty over Christmas and New Year that they are asking staff to give up pre-booked festive leave to come into work, and others are offering cash incentives to try to attract volunteers.
A third boss said: “NHS staff should be getting it now too, given staff sickness rates and the intense demands on hospitals like mine are facing and will face in the coming weeks.
“I’m getting emails from my staff saying, ‘this isn’t fair’. I empathise. The primary emphasis on over-80s and care staff means we might be prioritising a care home worker, who may be young and fit and might be working part-time, over front-facing NHS staff who are at risk in high-risk clinical environments.”
The small number of NHS staff who have had the vaccine so far got it either because of their poor underlying health or because they were offered it as part of efforts by hospitals not to waste any of the 975-dose batches, which have to be used within three and a half days. Bosses are also worried that staff generally will not get it until some time in 2021.
NHS sources stress that the supply of the vaccine is limited. Fifty hospitals in England began rolling out the vaccine on 8 December, 10 more joined them on Monday, and the next day several hundred groups of GP practices joined in too. The government announced on Wednesday that 138,000 people across the UK had had it in the first week.
Ministers and the NHS are eager for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which is much easier to store and transport than the Pfizer/BioNTech one, which makes it easier to take to places such as care homes and housebound patients’ own homes.
Prof Sarah Gilbert, one of the University of Oxford’s experts involved in its vaccine, said on Friday she hoped the MHRA will give it the green light soon. “Obviously I can’t prejudge that moment, the regulators have to be given their time to make their decisions, but I really hope that that moment isn’t too far off,” she told BBC radio.
A fourth chief executive told the Guardian she was worried about the impact on normal services of staff moving from their duties temporarily to become vaccinators, given that the NHS in England is already short of about 86,000 staff. She said: “Plenty of staff are coming forward to train as vaccinators. But do we use them to vaccinate, or continue caring for patients on wards with depleted staff?”
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents trusts, said: “Trust chief executives are, rightly and understandably, keen to get all of their staff vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“But they also understand why the JCVI has been very clear that the NHS must prioritise over-80s, care home staff and residents and the most high-risk NHS staff with this initial batch.
“This will be a temporary problem given that we have only just started a long process and vaccine supply is constrained. As soon as the flow of vaccine supply starts speeding up – for example, if and when further vaccines are approved – then it will be the turn of NHS staff.”
The Doctors Association UK, a network of NHS grassroots medics, backed the call for frontline staff to get jabs urgently. Dr Katie Sanderson, a DAUK spokesperson, said: “Logic dictates we vaccinate the vaccinators and healthcare workers as soon as possible, remembering the old adage: ‘first, do no harm’.”
However, the Royal College of Nursing backed the current priority list. Helen Donovan, its professional lead for public health, said: “Generally nursing staff understand that the programme has just started and we need to prioritise the most vulnerable. We need to get staff vaccinated as soon as possible so they can care for patients.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.