Around 72 hours before the deadline for NHS staff to have their first Covid-19 jab to keep their jobs, the government decided to reverse its controversial plan to sack front-line NHS staff refusing vaccination.
Following months of warnings that up to 80,000 staff would leave the health service if the plan went ahead, the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, met ministers on the Covid-19 operations cabinet committee on Monday 31 January to discuss a U-turn on the policy, which would have been enforced from 1 April (making 3 February the last date for staff to get a first dose, in order to receive a second dose by 31 March).
Addressing the House of Commons that day, Javid said: “While vaccination remains our very best line of defence against Covid-19, I believe that it is no longer proportionate to require vaccination as a condition of deployment.”
For over a year, the idea of compulsory vaccination for NHS staff, as well as those in social care settings (who had the vaccine mandate imposed on them in November 2021) has been fiercely debated, not just within the health service but among Conservative politicians.
“For the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, who have been pushing this quite strongly, I think it is embarrassing,” Mark Harper, the Conservative MP for Forest of Dean and chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, told the New Statesman.
“There was no rationale for pushing ahead with this tool [mandates]. I just don’t think it made sense in the first place – and I think the political weakness of the Prime Minister has got a lot to do with why the government’s changed its position.”
Harper believes it was cumulative pressure from the 63 Conservative MPs opposed to the mandate in a parliamentary vote in December 2021 – as well as additional people, “some of whom were members of the government who couldn’t [formally] oppose it” – and warnings from senior NHS leaders that finally forced ministers to back down. Not, as the official explanation goes, because of the relative mildness of the Omicron strain. That, plus “the fact that the Prime Minister is not in a position to say no to significant numbers of Conservative MPs”, Harper added.
Harper opposed the mandate because of “a combination” of science and morals.
“If we’d been in a position where the vaccines had stopped 95 per cent of transmission, I would have been conflicted… it would have been difficult to argue that it wouldn’t have had a really strong effect on patient safety,” he said.
“But as it was, the evidence was very weak because it didn’t do a lot to stop transmission, so there wasn’t a very good argument in favour of it – and I’m instinctively against coercing people.”
For every Conservative MP like Harper who is happy with the U-turn, another disgruntled parliamentarian reels. In reaction to the news, the chair of the Health Select Committee and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt called the change “completely wrong”, arguing that the health service finds itself in the “worst of all worlds” following the decision.
“I just don’t agree with Jeremy’s position,” Harper said of Hunt, who revealed that he considered mandating flu vaccinations in his final year as health secretary in 2018.
“He did the job for six years, which is about the longest-serving health secretary in the history of the universe,” said Harper. “So he clearly didn’t believe [in] it very strongly, because otherwise he would’ve done something about it.”
For those who have endured a year of uncertainty over their futures in the health service, the U-turn has come as a relief.
“I’ve been bombarded with messages of people so worried and concerned that they were going to lose their livelihoods,” Cathy Jones, a paramedic and founder of the NHS100k movement (“100k” being an estimate of the number of people prepared to walk over the measure), told the New Statesman.
“There is a lot of frustration and anger that this has been hanging over us for so long,” she said. “For everyone in the service, it’s been such a worry. The impact on mental health and stress levels… it’s been horrific.”
Jones, who works for a trust in the north-west of England, is calling for an “apology” from the government.
Harper supports the idea of an apology – both to NHS staff and social care workers, who had mandates placed on their sector last November. “I do think the government ought to… apologise to them – [but] I don’t think it’s going to,” Harper said.
The cancellation of the policy particularly “stung” those within the social care sector following months of difficulties after its mandate came in, Raj Sehgal, who runs four care homes across Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, told the New Statesman.
“Social care was like the guinea pig service: they [the government] tried it, and they’ve seen how many people left the sector within such a short period of time, and they simply can’t afford for the health service to have the same.”
An estimated 40,000 people working in care lost their jobs over the policy.
Political pressure on a vulnerable Prime Minister, coupled with the arrival of the relatively milder Omicron variant, has put this NHS debate to bed for now. The possibility, however, of future, more transmissible variants could yet reignite a thorny issue that has confronted ministers – sometimes literally, in hospital corridors – throughout the pandemic.