The Government is to announce that care home workers will be required to have mandatory coronavirus vaccinations.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is known to be in favour of the move, while England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has said doctors and care workers have a “professional responsibility” to protect their patients.
Ministers will announce the move in the coming days, the PA news agency has been told, after a consultation was carried out into using staff vaccination in England to protect the most vulnerable from Covid-19.
Consultation will also begin on whether other health and care workers should also have the jabs.
It comes after concerns that some parts of the country, such as London, have particularly low uptake of vaccines for care home staff.
Overall NHS figures to June 6 show that 84% of staff in older adult care homes in England have had one dose of vaccine, and almost 69% have had both jabs.
But NHS data shows that in Hackney, in east London, for example, just 66.7% of staff in older adult care homes have had their first dose, with only 58.6% of staff in the borough having both doses.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Vaccines are our way out of this pandemic and have already saved thousands of lives – with millions of health and care staff vaccinated.
“Our priority is to make sure people in care homes are protected and we launched the consultation to get views on whether and how the Government might take forward a new requirement for adult care home providers, looking after older people, to only deploy staff who have had a Covid-19 vaccination or have an appropriate exemption.”
The decision, first reported by the Guardian, is controversial, with the GMB union saying that more than a third of carers would consider leaving their jobs if vaccinations become compulsory.
GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said: “Carers have been at the forefront of this pandemic, risking their lives to keep our loved ones safe, often enduring almost Victorian working standards in the process.
“The Government could do a lot to help them: address their pay, terms and conditions, increasing the rate of and access to contractual sick pay, banning zero hours, and ensuring more mobile NHS vaccination teams so those working night shifts can get the jab.
“Instead, ministers are ploughing ahead with plans to strongarm care workers into taking the vaccine without taking seriously the massive blocks these workers still face in getting jabbed.”
Research published last month by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) found that black African and mixed black African staff are almost twice as likely to decline a vaccination as white British and white Irish participants.
Reasons included concerns about a lack of research and distrust in the vaccines, healthcare providers, and policymakers.
Some social care staff also described “quite a battle” in getting jabs, saying they received mixed messages about whether they should organise vaccination through their employer or GP.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said of the Government’s decision: “The only way out of the pandemic is for everyone that can to have their jabs.
“Research shows encouragement achieves better results with the nervous than threats or coercion.
“The Government’s sledgehammer approach now runs the risk that some care staff may simply walk away from an already understaffed, undervalued and underpaid sector.”
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail added: “Unite strongly opposes forcing any health and social care workers to have a vaccine or risk sacrificing their job.”
Vic Rayner, chief executive of the National Care Forum, said a decision to force care home workers to be deployed elsewhere if they are not vaccinated in 16 weeks would be “really challenging” and it is potentially about people not being able to work in the sector.
She told BBC Breakfast: “I think there’s a couple of important points in here, so the consultation itself was on vaccination as a condition of deployment rather than employment and I think that’s really important to understand.
“Because one of the things I think the consultation, when it comes out, will say … that staff need to be deployed in jobs if they’re not vaccinated away from people who are vulnerable older people, people in care homes.
“Clearly if you work in a care home there isn’t anywhere else for you to go that isn’t involved in working with those individuals so I think the consultation will suggest for people who are unwilling to be vaccinated or don’t wish to be vaccinated that they should be deployed somewhere else.
“That’s really challenging for a sector that’s largely made up of small employers and don’t really have anywhere else for people to go, so we need to be really clear that this is potentially about people no longer being able to work in the sector, and that’s probably one of the primary concerns.”
Mike Padgham, chairman of the Independent Care Group (ICG), which represents care homes in Yorkshire, said he fears people will be put off entering the social care sector.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he is in favour of “persuasion rather than coercion or compulsion”, adding: “What I’m worried about is the recruitment crisis already in social care, is that we’re frightened that this is going to put more people off coming into social care and that’s going to be difficult.
“I’m also worried about any legal action against providers, because if you’ve only got 16 weeks and you lose your job, where does that put people? We’re already short of staff.”
But the director of public health for Gateshead, Alice Wiseman, told Times Radio she is in favour, saying: “This is a really difficult decision because nobody ever wants to take away an individual’s right to have that choice.
“But we do make some vaccines mandatory in other aspects of healthcare. So, for example, we ensure all surgeons have their Hep B vaccination, and it’s really important that we do this where we’re protecting those people who we are caring for.
“And certainly, if I had my mum in a care home, I would want to know that the staff around them were fully protected and able to provide my mum with the best care that she could have.
“So, whilst I appreciate that it’s very difficult as a decision, I am grateful that we are looking at that.”
The UK’s human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has however concluded it is “reasonable” to legally require care home staff to be vaccinated.
But it did advise that safeguards should be included to minimise the risk of discrimination by including exemptions including for staff who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.