Senior public health advisers and unions have warned that frontline workers could die unnecessarily from Covid-19 because they have not been prioritised in the government’s vaccine distribution plan.
The Department of Health’s interim plan for delivering a new vaccine, which could be approved by the end of the year and rolled out in 2021, prioritises the elderly along with health and care workers but doesn’t include essential workers in the most dangerous roles. There was also anger that the government has yet to commit to vaccinate thousands of people who work in hospitals such as cleaners, porters, security guards and patient transport drivers.
Steve Green, a hospital security guard in London, who is still struggling with the physical after-effects of contracting Covid, said outsourced staff should not be left out of an early vaccine rollout. “The doctors and nurses are my friends – of course they should be vaccinated first – but I thought, after last time, people had stopped seeing us as second class,” said Green, not his real name. “Just because there’s a different company on our payslips – we’re still NHS at heart – why don’t they think I need protecting?”
Lola McEvoy, GMB key worker organiser, said outsourced hospital workers needed to know if they were at the front of the queue for the vaccine, like directly employed NHS workers. “It is simply wrong if once again they are to face the same risk to their lives as their NHS colleagues, without the same protection. We are all willing the vaccine to be a success, but for this rollout to work our members must be vaccinated as a priority,” she said.
Professor Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, urged the government to think again as lives were at stake. “We will have unnecessary deaths if we do not change course,” he said. “This vaccine is protective and we need to use it to protect those at most risk. While the risk comes predominately from age, you cannot ignore what we should have learned from the first wave: that there are some occupations that are at considerable risk.”
He said officials should look at the approach adopted in New York, which prioritises public-facing staff such as transit workers and grocery workers for any vaccine.
Frontline male workers in low-paid manual jobs were found to be four times more likely to die in the first wave of the virus than men in professional occupations, according to an analysis of Covid deaths by the Office for National Statistics.
Security guards are especially at risk, with the highest death rate of all occupations. Cyril Hawken, a 59-year-old guard at a university hall of residence in south London, worries that he might be exposed to the virus while he waits for a vaccine to be made available to his age group. “Since the university has reopened, we have had several positive cases,” he said. “You have to be extra careful when you do your daily patrols.”
Hawken added that it was unfair that workers at high risk like him would have to wait for a vaccine. “They call us key workers but when it comes to getting a vaccine, they put us at the bottom of the ladder.”
Bus drivers are also at higher risk, with at least 30 known to have died from Covid in London since March. Joe Welch, a bus driver in north London, said he personally knew five of the drivers who had died from coronavirus. “It’s pretty grim – you have to explain to the families and deal with the effect on their colleagues,” he said.
Welch, 64, who has worked through both lockdowns, said drivers were worried about a second wave, and deserved to be protected by a vaccine. “Our guys have gone out there even though they were scared – it is only a fair reward for them to be higher up the scale,” he said.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which drew up the plan for the government, said it had not yet decided whether to include outsourced hospital workers in the priority group for a vaccine. Professor Wei Shen Lim, the committee’s chair for Covid immunisation, said older people and health and social care workers would be prioritised. “This recommendation was made with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible. The risk of death from Covid-19 increases exponentially with age. Frontline health and social care workers are essential to the work of the NHS in saving lives and are also at increased risk of exposure and transmitting the virus to vulnerable patients.”