Government ‘seriously considering’ allowing care homes to insist staff get Covid-19 vaccine

The government is actively considering a policy that would allow care homes to insist that employees who work with people vulnerable to Covid-19 must be vaccinated, Community Care understands.

The proposals being discussed could see the government either issue guidance for care homes that would allow them to adopt the policy with government backing, or set out legal rules that state homes cannot take on staff unless they’ve had the vaccination.

Community Care understands the policy is under serious consideration. Earlier this week, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said one-third of social care staff had not had the vaccine (source: BBC News), despite being in the top two priority groups, who have been able to access the vaccine since December. Care home staff working with older adults were in the top priority group.

Providers already requiring new staff to have vaccine

Earlier this month, care home provider Barchester Healthcare said new staff could not start working with service users until they had been vaccinated (so long as they were medically fit to receive the jab).

In a statement, it said: “We have been working hard to ensure that all of our staff are aware of the facts around the vaccination, and as we have previously said we have done a lot of communication to understand and alleviate any concerns.”

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, care minister Helen Whately said that she recognised other employers had made vaccination mandatory for new staff, as well as Barchester.

“I know [Barchester] are doing that and that there are some other employers are looking at doing that.”

‘Punitive measures’ undermine trust and confidence in vaccine

While UNISON would not comment on the potential government proposals, a spokesperson pointed to a statement made after Barchester announced its policy, in which general secretary Christina McAnea said that, while the vaccination programme was “the way out of this health crisis” “care employers who put punitive measures in place for staff, or make it a condition of work, are undermining trust and confidence in the vaccine”.

“They are also at odds with the sensible approach being taken by most employers and the NHS,” McAnea added.

“Companies would do better to concentrate on informing staff about the benefits of the vaccination, rather than intimidating them [and] ministers should be firm with Barchester that its approach is wrong and must be reversed.”

More to be done to address vaccine hesitancy

A National Care Forum survey carried out on 8-9 February found that, among care homes for older adults, about a half (53%) had had over 70% of staff vaccinated, with rates much lower among other care homes and community-based services.

The survey examined the reasons behind the lack of take-up of the vaccine among different areas of the social care workforce. Among the findings was that hesitancy was the dominant reason for the lack of vaccination in care homes for working-age adults, while there was an “unexpectedly large category” of those who have not yet had the vaccine are those with medical reasons not to have it.

At the time, Vic Rayner, executive director at the NCF, said more work was needed to address vaccine hesitancy, as well as a better understanding of the medical barriers to vaccine uptake.

“When it comes to vaccination hesitancy, social care providers need to be supported with tailored resources to build confidence in the vaccine programme, address staff concerns and combat misinformation,” Rayner said.

An NCF spokesperson said this remained its position, when asked to comment on the speculation around the government’s plans.

Focus on giving care staff the information they need

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) would not confirm whether the policy was under consideration, but in a statement said: “At this stage of the vaccination programme, it is not clear whether vaccines will prevent transmission.”

“As large numbers of people from at-risk groups are vaccinated, we will be able to gather the evidence to prove the impact on infection rates, hospitalisation and reduced deaths. If successful, this should in time lead to a reassessment of current restrictions.”

In her Today interview, when asked about employers mandating vaccination, Whately said: “What we’re doing at the moment is making sure that health and social care workers have every opportunity to have the vaccination.”

Whately was then pressed on the point about making it a requirement for new staff to have had the vaccine and she said the government’s policy on this was “to make sure health and social care workers can get the vaccine and the information they need and really easily”.

“We know from the evidence we’ve seen that that makes a real difference, we’ve learned from the flu vaccination programmes in the past and from what we’re seeing already from Covid.

“So for care home workers, making sure that teams go into care homes not just once but multiple times, going in at least four times in order to offer the vaccine, for instance, to shift workers who may not have been there when the team went in, those who have been Covid positive and couldn’t have the vaccine first time round.”