Health workers in England will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by April 1, health minister Sajid Javid says, making it a mandatory condition of employment for those on the frontline of the National Health Service (NHS).
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seeking to navigate a difficult northern hemisphere winter for the health system without further economically damaging lockdowns to help protect against COVID-19 contagion.
Javid said he had to balance the benefit to patients and colleagues with concern that workers might decide to leave their jobs rather than get the shots.
He said workplace pressures were one reason the measure would not come in until the spring.
“All those working in the NHS and social care will have to be vaccinated. We must avoid preventable harm and protect patients in the NHS, protect colleagues in the NHS and of course protect the NHS itself,” Javid told parliament.
“We intend the enforcement of this condition to start on the 1st of April.”
The move in England follows similar mandates in France, Italy and some US states in ordering healthcare workers to get vaccinated.
Javid said there would be exemptions for people who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons and for those who do not have face-to-face contact with patients.
The move follows a similar decision to make COVID-19 vaccines compulsory for care home workers, which comes into force on Thursday.
There are about 100,000 health workers who are yet to have their first shot, Javid said.
“No one in the NHS or care that is currently unvaccinated should be scapegoated, singled out or shamed,” Javid said.
“This is about supporting them to make a positive choice to protect vulnerable people, to protect their colleagues and, of course, to protect themselves.”
Javid said the consultation for health workers also considered the idea of making flu vaccines mandatory.
He said he would not introduce requirements for flu shots at this stage but added the option remained open.
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society said it was “concerned” about the policy, and said the ethical implications regarding individuals’ right to consent to treatment “will need consideration”.
It also puts those delivering jabs “in a difficult position” as consent is a “fundamental principle of good healthcare”, it said.
Dominic Wilkinson, Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said that focusing on vaccinations was too simplistic.
“Individuals with sufficient proof of natural immunity should be granted a medical exemption to the vaccine mandate being placed on care home workers and NHS staff,” he said.