A third of staff in older adult care homes in some areas of London have not received a single vaccine nearly six months after they were made a top priority, in a development that has left more than a 1,000 care workers still unprotected in just four boroughs.
On Wednesday the health secretary confirmed that the government would make Covid vaccines mandatory for all residential care workers in England from around October, defying warnings from some care leaders that it could trigger a staffing crisis.
Matt Hancock announced plans to legislate to make two doses obligatory for anyone who provides nursing or personal care in a care setting. Workmen, visiting NHS staff and hairdressers must also be double jabbed, but visiting family and friends and emergency workers will be exempt. He also announced a consultation on extending the requirement to NHS and other health care staff, including domiciliary care.
The announcement came after it emerged that just 65% of care homes had the minimum staff uptake of 80% for one dose advised by the social care working group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
A third of staff in older adult care homes in some areas of London have not received a single vaccine nearly six months after they were made a top priority by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. It has left more than a 1,000 care workers still unprotected in just four boroughs.
Overall across England, nearly 84% of care workers have received their first dose but in Hackney, Wandsworth, Lambeth and Southwark, the take-up has been much lower, with more than 30% refusing the jab so far.
NHS data shows nearly 77,000 of care workers in older people’s homes who are eligible still have not had a first jab, with almost 150,000 yet to receive both jabs across England.
“This is the right thing to do and a vitally important step to continue protecting care homes now and in the future,” said Hancock. “I’d urge anyone working in care homes to get their jab as soon as possible.”
Care minister, Helen Whately urged those currently unvaccinated to “protect those they care for, themselves and those they work alongside”.
The Guardian reported on Tuesday that ministers were set to push ahead with compulsory vaccination for most of the people working in social care in England. The plan was first floated in April and earlier this month the UK’s human rights watchdog judged that ministers were “right to prioritise protection of the right to life for residents and staff” and said it would be reasonable for care home workers to need a jab “in order to work directly with older and disabled people, subject to some important safeguards”.
But care home boss Mike Padgham, who chairs the Independent Care Group, said: “This will without doubt create another barrier to recruitment at a time when social care providers are facing an employment crisis and struggling to fill one shift at a time.
“What about those already employed? Are employers going to have to force them to have the injection and dismiss them if they don’t? That can’t be right and will surely open the door for legal challenge.”
Karolina Gerlich, of the Care Workers Charity, said vaccination had become the most divisive issue in the workforce for years and that several have declared in internal forums that “this goes against their right to chose and they will be leaving the sector and leaving their jobs”. She said some are resisting the jab simply because they are being forced to do it, while some younger women remain concerned about risks to their fertility despite there being no evidence of that.
Christina McAnea, the general secretary of Unison, which represents care workers, said the government was taking “a sledgehammer approach” which “runs the risk that some care staff may simply walk away from an already understaffed, undervalued and underpaid sector”.
However Barchester, one of the UK’s largest private care home operators, said that after it launched an information drive and told staff it expected them all to have the vaccine by 23 April with some medical exemptions, it reached 99% vaccination. It said about 100 of around 15,000 staff have left or are leaving rather than get the jab but added that some new applicants were stating they were attracted by working in a 100% vaccinated environment.
The pattern of refusal among care workers in the London boroughs, which have relatively high ethnic minority populations, appears to reflect disproportionately high levels of vaccine hesitancy among black and Asian people in the capital. NHS data shows 8% of the people who have had first doses in London were black even though they make up more than 13% of the population. Take-up was also slightly lower in Asian populations at 17% compared with 18.5% of the population.
Tim Adex, the manager at Newnton House care home in Hackney, said some staff were ready to “pack their bags and go back to Africa” when they were first told they needed the vaccine over safety fears. But he said white, black African and Asian managers all took the vaccine first to demonstrate its safety and the staff had since all taken the jab.
Reports have suggested care home workers could be deployed elsewhere if they are not vaccinated within 16 weeks. Vic Rayner, the chief executive of the National Care Forum, which represents not-for-profit carers, has said this would be “really challenging” for the sector.
Rayner told BBC Breakfast she expected to be told that staff who are not vaccinated must be deployed away from vulnerable people, rather than that they should be fired.
On Wednesday, all people over 21 in England were invited to book their Covid-19 vaccination. People aged 21 and 22 are able to book for the first time after the head of the NHS in England said all adults in the country should be able to book their first jab by the end of the week.