Vaccine Mandate U-Turn Driven By staff shortages, Not Omicron

Matthew Dunster, MD of Digital Home Visits Group, welcomes the Government rethink on mandatory vaccinations. But is it enough to solve the healthcare staffing crisis? 

As absences and staff shortages in Health and Social Care, combined with extraordinary demand on the NHS, have made this one of the toughest winters we’ve ever seen, the news that Sajid Javid is scrapping the vaccination mandate for Social Care workers will be welcomed by many. Suddenly losing so many members of staff would put extra stress on the remaining healthcare workers, which would lead to more resignations – and pile more pressure onto the NHS and Social Care.   

In an ideal world, everyone working in Social Care would be vaccinated, but when the Government realised how many staff they could lose with the policy, they changed direction. Instead of hammering the sector with a “No vaccine, no job” rule, they’ve been forced to take a pragmatic approach. 

On the surface, the vaccine mandate was going to be introduced as a way to protect patients, but with fewer staff we could have ended up with a situation where people stayed in hospital for much longer than required. This could have led to an increased death rate overall with an increased risk of hospital acquired infections. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid claims a strict vaccine mandate is no longer needed because the Omicron variant has turned out to be milder. But is that really the reason behind the change? This is an extremely transmissible virus causing hundreds of thousands of infections – and sadly hundreds of deaths – every week. 

The fact that the Omicron picture is different now is useful reasoning to drop the mandate, but it would not have changed the stark fact that it was always an unworkable policy. 

Clearly the u-turn has happened because the strategists have recognised the enormity of losing swathes of unvaccinated staff members. Surely they’ve identified that in a full employment labour market, they cannot fill outstanding roles already, let alone backfilling more than 100,000 new vacancies. Staff retention is directly related to staff vacancies, so it wouldn’t have just been the unvaccinated staff that would have left, it would be a percentage of those left behind to absorb the extra stress. That’s a chain reaction that the health service can ill afford right now. 

Care staff need to be happy at work to do their jobs properly. Every vacancy in a team means more work for carers who have no choice but to fill those gaps. Losing unvaccinated workers would create even more pressure on an already stretched service.  

For my company, Digital Home Visits, high standards in care are the number one demand we put on our 500 staff. And if there are gaps in the rota, how can we deliver the good-quality care our loved ones need? We know there’s an ever-increasing population whose quality of living is dependent on it. 

But make no mistake: just because scrapping the vaccine mandate has stalled a sudden drop in Social Care staff doesn’t mean the problem is solved. There are still thousands of vacancies to be filled. 

So now it’s vital that the Government takes action to recruit those new staff members that Health and Social Care so urgently needs. It’s very clear that Health and Social Care cannot be adequately resourced in its current format, so how much more expenditure do the Government envisage internal and external providers will need to make to avoid the status quo? 

Time will tell if the forthcoming April budgets meet with that assessment, but the treasury needs to find the funding and support to solve this problem before it’s too late.