Legal requirements for health and social care staff to be double vaccinated against COVID-19 are set to be revoked, subject to public consultation and parliamentary approval, the government has announced.
However, those working in health and social care have been told they still have “a professional duty” to get vaccinated.
In November 2021, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, announced that pharmacists and other patient-facing NHS staff working in hospitals and general practice in England would face a mandatory requirement to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 from 1 April 2022.
The decision followed a government consultation, published on 9 September 2021, which proposed requiring all staff providing services regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and flu to continue working on the front line.
However, the Department of Health and Social Care said on 31 January 2022 that vaccination as a condition of deployment was being “revisited” as Omicron replaced Delta as the “dominant variant” of COVID-19.
“When vaccination as a condition of deployment was introduced, Delta was the dominant variant representing 99% of cases. Omicron has now replaced Delta as the dominant variant at 96% of cases.”
The release added that with more than 31 million boosters administered in England, and more than 127,000 NHS staff vaccinated at least once since the original consultation was launched in September 2021, there was now “a good level of protection” across the country and this, coupled with lower levels of hospitalisation and mortality, following the emergence of Omicron, suggested that the population as a whole was now “better protected”.
A letter sent out by NHS England on 31 January 2022 acknowledged that employers would have already begun to prepare for formal meetings with staff on their deployment if they remain unvaccinated.
It highlighted that the change in government policy meant that employers were requested to not serve notice of termination to employees affected by the vaccination as a condition of deployment regulations.
Claire Anderson, Royal Pharmaceutical Society president, said that while the RPS had “always encouraged” pharmacy teams to have any vaccine necessary to help protect themselves, it did not support making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory in England.
“Informed and educated choices about health interventions are more beneficial in the long-term than enforcing them,” she said.
“This policy was brought forward despite concerns raised by professional bodies from across the health professions. This is a divisive issue and has put some staff in a really difficult position, often personally as well as professionally.
“This reversal may come as little comfort for those already affected by this policy, including those working in the care sector, and the government and NHS must ensure they get the support they need.”
Ewan Maule, vice president of the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists, said: “The NHS-led vaccination programme has offered all relevant staff ample opportunity to have their vaccine, and where staff have not taken this opportunity up, the reasons for them making those decisions need exploring and the staff need support to address these, rather than being pressured.
“The threat of dismissal or redeployment of these staff placed enormous and unacceptable pressures on individuals, managers, services and employers. Damage has been done to relationships, people have been vaccinated when they didn’t want to be and people have left the NHS unnecessarily.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), said: “Following the UK government’s decision not to proceed with requiring vaccination as a condition of deployment for health and care staff providing CQC-regulated activities in England, the GPhC will continue to underline the case for taking up COVID-19 vaccination in all pharmacy settings.”
The government’s decision is subject to parliamentary process and will require further consultation and a vote to be passed into legislation.