As Canada faces protests against vaccine mandates, the British government is backing away from all compulsory vaccination requirements, including for health care workers.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced on Monday that the government planned to scrap regulations that would have required front-line health care staff in England to be fully vaccinated by April 1. The government will also lift a similar vaccine mandate that has been in place for nursing-home staff since November. The announcement means that there will be no vaccine requirements anywhere in Britain.
“Week by week, we are carefully moving our COVID response from one of rules and restrictions back to one of personal responsibility,” Mr. Javid told the House of Commons. “While some countries remain stuck on a zero-COVID strategy, and others think about how they will safely open up, here we are showing the way forward and showing the world what successfully living with COVID looks like.”
The government had been under increasing pressure to drop compulsory vaccination for health care staff. The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said the requirement would have had catastrophic consequences for maternity service and led to thousands of workers losing their jobs.
“Now that this welcome decision has been made, we need to focus on encouraging unvaccinated staff to have the jab through support, discussion and engagement,” said Jon Skewes, executive director for external relations at the RCM. “Mandatory COVID vaccination was always a wrongheaded policy.”
The Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of General Practitioners had also warned that mandatory vaccination would have a serious impact on the National Health Service and exacerbate staff shortages.
NHS “leaders have always been clear there are risks as well as benefits to mandating the COVID-19 vaccination for all health and social care staff,” Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, told the Observer recently. Compulsory jabs “will reduce front-line NHS staff numbers even further and lead to more gaps in capacity at a time of intense pressure and patient demand.”
Mr. Javid has said that while the vast majority of NHS staff have been vaccinated, around 77,000 have refused. And he said 19,300 nursing-home workers had lost their jobs since the mandate came into force in November. It wasn’t clear if they would be able to return to their jobs.
He defended the U-turn in government policy by saying that the nature of the pandemic had changed. The public is better protected because of the massive booster-shot program, he said. And the Omicron variant is causing less severe illness and hospitalization than the earlier Delta variant. As a result, Mr. Javid said that it was “no longer proportionate to require vaccination as a condition of employment.”
The announcement is the latest move by the government to ease nearly all COVID-19 restrictions. Face masks are no longer mandatory in England and vaccine passports have been dropped, although they were only compulsory in nightclubs and at large events, such as soccer games. The government is also eliminating all testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers on Feb. 11.
Just about the only measure left in place – self-isolation for up to 10 days after a positive COVID-19 test – could also be scrapped before the end of March.
Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also begun to ease some of their regulations.
“It is now in our national interest to embark on this new phase of the pandemic where we keep our British people safe while showing the world how we can successfully learn to live with COVID-19,” Mr. Javid said.
Some health experts have questioned the Health Secretary’s decision and argued that infection levels remain high at roughly 100,000 new cases a day. There’s also growing concern about a sub-lineage of Omicron called BA.2, which is beginning to emerge in Britain and Europe. Researchers say it appears to be more transmissible than the original version of Omicron and better able to evade vaccines, but there is no indication yet that BA.2 causes severe illness.
“The risk of hospital admission from Omicron may only be half that of Delta but it can still cause severe disease, even death, in some people, particularly older populations,” Daniel Sokol, a medical ethicist, wrote recently in the British Medical Journal.
“Health care workers, like everyone else, are free to refuse the COVID vaccine. If they exercise this right, however, they cannot work with vulnerable patients. To do so would be contrary to the ethics of their profession, as set out in their professional codes, and is likely to damage public trust and confidence in the medical profession.”
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