Following the announcement in 2021 that all frontline health and care workers in England will be required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment from April 2022, regulations to enforce these requirements have now been made.
What will happen now?
Applying across the NHS and independent sector in England, by 1 April all healthcare workers aged 18 and over who ‘have direct, face to face contact with service users…including front-line workers, as well as non-clinical workers…such as receptionists, ward clerks, porters and cleaners’, will need to be fully vaccinated or medically exempt.
This means that by 3 February you will need to have received your first vaccine dose, given the recommended eight week gap between the two doses.
NHS England’s guidance states that ‘Employers should consider the possibility of redeployment for staff in scope of the regulations and who remain unvaccinated on 1 April 2022’. This guidance provides information on how trusts should plan for and enforce the regulations. Additional guidance has also been promised.
Wales and Scotland has indicated that it does not plan to follow suit in requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment for healthcare workers. Northern Ireland’s Department of Health announced in November its intention to consult on plans for mandatory vaccines for new recruits to the health and care workforce, but not for existing staff.
What is our view?
The Royal College of Ophthalmologists has strongly supported and encouraged all staff and members of the public to be vaccinated unless they are medically exempt, and will continue to do so. By following government advice and scientific guidance, vaccination reduces the likelihood of suffering severe symptoms from COVID-19, helps slow the spread in the community and clinical settings and protects NHS services.
However, along with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC) and a number of other health organisations, we do not think that mandatory vaccination is the right approach. Latest data shows that up to November 2021, 90.7% of staff working in NHS trusts in England had already received two vaccine doses.
We believe that the focus should be on supporting the remaining 9% to be vaccinated. As the AoMRC statement outlined, mandation ‘will cause difficulties and disputes at local and national levels’. As the NHS grapples with severe workforce shortages, we should be fully focusing on delivering patient care while continuing the booster rollout. We should also be wary of the risk that staff members who decide not to be vaccinated or accept redeployment may leave the NHS entirely, worsening existing workforce shortages.
Despite these issues being widely raised, the government has nevertheless moved forward in implementing these requirements. All staff and trusts should be aware of the regulations and their implications, with more detailed guidance available from NHS England.