Henry McDonald: NHS workers should be required to have Covid vaccines

At present the father of someone very close to me is in a malign medical limbo.

Monday, 15th November 2021, 11:46 am
Updated Monday, 15th November 2021, 12:19 pm
The health minister Robin Swann getting a Covid vaccine earlier this year. But he won’t even agree that patients and their families have the right to ask which staff in a particular care home or hospital are not vaccinated

He is being looked after in one of Northern Ireland’s hard-pressed hospitals and can only be discharged once a care home is found for him.

The man is in his late 70s and suffers from a form of dementia thus needing specialist care wherever he will end up.

His family are caught in a dilemma: they believe a care home which specialises in looking after dementia patients is his best option but fear that he could still be vulnerable to catching Covid-19.

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Their concerns are two-fold – their relative is still waiting for his third Covid jab and they are deeply worried he might enter a care system where not all of the staff are themselves vaccinated.

His loved one’s predicament is what would happen to him if even one unvaccinated care worker brought the virus into the home and exposed him to an illness that given his fragile state could prove fatal.

This single case highlights the bewildering refusal of both local health unions and it seems for now the Department of Health at Stormont not to roll out a system where those in care homes or NHS hospitals must be vaccinated.

On Armistice Day it was announced that Covid-19 vaccines were to be mandatory for care home staff in England while all those working in the English NHS must be jabbed after April 2022. We are not following suit.

Care home bosses have warned of an exodus of staff if the rule is imposed rapidly. Given that almost 60,000 care home staff in England are still not vaccinated there are genuine fears that workers will be fired and the care sector will suffer enormous labour shortages.

There is certainly an argument for running the compulsory vaccination regime over a longer period of time to ensure either more vaccine compliance among staff or else enable employers to recruit more new staff who are willing to be jabbed.

The tension between mass staff vaccination to protect vulnerable often elderly patients and maintaining a credible labour force points to a failure across the entire health system in the UK. This is a debate that should have been held long before the winter, the most dangerous period for respiratory infections. And that is the fault of both the Tories nationally and those running the devolved regions including this province.

In Northern Ireland however there is hardly even a debate about following England’s path. The main health unions vehemently oppose mandatory vaccination while the Health Minister Robin Swann won’t even agree that patients and their families have the right to ask which staff in a particular care home or hospital are not vaccinated.

The stance of the public service unions is in particular very odd. The key words here are ‘public’ and ‘service’. Surely it is in the service of the public that all staff in the care and health sectors be vaccinated to protect their fellow citizens.

Union leaders have sought to play down the role of unvaccinated care workers enabling the spread of the virus in homes. And yet who could not be troubled by a statistic released by the Belfast Trust last week that about 20% of its workforce have not been vaccinated to date.

One of the principal arguments against mandatory vaccinations in the health and care sectors is the libertarian one. Which is that individuals have the freedom to choose whether or not to be jabbed. When it comes to public health and the wellbeing of others however such freedoms are already qualified.

Some libertarians argued robustly against the smoking ban when it was imposed back in 2007. They claimed it was a restriction on their individual liberty.

I remember at the time contesting this claim with one of my oldest friends (unlike me he is a smoker) who also happens to be a life-long trade unionist. I put it to him that the smoking ban was there to protect the health of his fellow workers who had to earn a living in the hospitality industry. The ban was a trade union issue and as a union man it was a move he should support.

To be fair opposition to mandatory vaccination is not confined to unions representing the relatively low paid in the care and health sectors. Even among medical professionals for instance there remains stubborn resistance to even universal flu jabs for doctors.

A recent opinion poll for the British Medical Journal asked physicians if doctors who refuse the flu vaccine should be redeployed to roles with no patient contact. Out of a sample of 2,164 doctors surveyed by the BMJ only 441 (20%) said yes while a large majority 1,723 (80%) said no.

By contrast in relation to the Covid-19 vaccine Italy, France and Greece have made it mandatory for healthcare workers.

One union leader in Northern Ireland recently praised Robin Swann for “not blindly following other jurisdictions”. More’s the pity that up until now our health minister hasn’t followed the example of the Italians, French, Greeks and now the English.

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