Hospitals in the UK can continue to hire unvaccinated NHS healthcare workers beyond the April deadline if it does not risk leaving them dangerously understaffed, the sector regulator has indicated.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said it would implement the government’s dictation of mandatory jabs “fairly and proportionately”, amid fears it would exacerbate the NHS’s existing staffing crisis.
Its comments were welcomed by hospital trustees coming before Thursday’s deadline for all NHS staff in the UK who have direct contact with patients to receive their first dose of a Covid vaccine, to complete the course before 1 April , or risk losing their jobs. About 80,000 front-line NHS staff have still not received a first dose, and the NHS already has 93,000 vacancies, including 40,000 for nurses.
Ted Baker, CQC’s Chief Inspector of Hospitals, said: “We will work with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to ensure that this government legislation is implemented fairly and proportionately when it enters into force.
“New rules requiring registered healthcare providers to only deploy fully vaccinated staff in patient-facing roles do not replace other regulatory requirements, and hospital trusts may have to make difficult risk-based decisions to determine the safest possible approach under different circumstances. “
Commenting on the Sunday Times, which expands the CQC’s approach, Baker said: “We fully acknowledge that there is concern that the introduction of mandatory vaccination rules risks exacerbating existing staff shortages.”
Trade unions, including the Royal College of Nursing and the TUC, have called for delaying mandatory jabs, or even scrapping, and expressing fears about the impact it will have on staff levels. The government’s own impact assessment of its policy concluded that as many as 73,000 employees could leave the place to be stabbed, with women, people from ethnic minorities and younger workers among those most likely to resign or be forced out. There have also been demands from the Tory backers that the policy be dropped.
There was a mixed reaction to CQC’s comments. NHS providers representing hospital funds welcomed them reflecting their own concerns.
Saffron Cordery, Deputy CEO of NHS Providers, said: “NHS Providers have consistently highlighted that there were always two risks to deal with here – the risk of Covid cross-infection in healthcare settings and the consequences of losing staff if a significant number refused to CQC is clearly also seeking to act proportionately to balance these risks while carrying out its role.
“Trusts are working hard to increase the number of vaccinated employees, and the number is increasing at an increasing rate as we approach the deadline for the first vaccination to be carried out.
“But we know there may be some services at risk if trusts have to relocate or lay off all unvaccinated staff when the April deadline is reached, as current government regulations will require them to do. We still do not know how serious or this risk will be widespread, but it is one that NHS leaders clearly need to address. “
But Britain’s largest health association, Unison, warned that the CQC’s comments only muddled the water, suggesting the policy was useless.
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, said: “This suggests that a confusing element of discretion will now apply to what is already distracting and unnecessary legislation. Allowing the rules to be disregarded in certain cases creates a risk of unfair and potentially discriminatory “If the CQC considers the mandatory approach to be incompatible with safe manning, then the new law should simply be scrapped.”
A spokesman for DHSC said: “Health and social workers are caring for the most vulnerable people in the community and ensuring that staff are vaccinated is the right thing to do to protect patients and those in care. We continue to work closely along with trusts to encourage the uptake of the vaccine – the vast majority of NHS staff have been given the vaccine that is our best defense against Covid-19. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we adhere to all Covid-19 policies under review. “