The prospect of care home workers being required to get vaccinated against Covid-19 has moved a step closer, with a crucial endorsement from the UK’s human rights watchdog.
Ministers are considering changing the law to make vaccination a condition of deployment for people in some professions that come into regular close contact with elderly and vulnerable people at high risk from the coronavirus.
In a report to the government seen by the Guardian, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) admitted that making vaccines compulsory for care home staff would be a “significant departure from current public health policy”.
But they judged that ministers were “right to prioritise protection of the right to life for residents and staff” and said it would be reasonable for care home workers to need a jab “in order to work directly with older and disabled people, subject to some important safeguards”.
The EHRC is also likely to make a similar recommendation about healthcare workers, after the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, suggested over the weekend that NHS staff could face mandatory jabs, too, as some patients were “being infected in hospital”.
Zahawi said no decisions had been made yet, and stressed there was a precedent: surgeons were required to be vaccinated against hepatitis B. He added: “It would be incumbent on any responsible government to have the debate, to do the thinking about how we go about protecting the most vulnerable by making sure that those who look after them are vaccinated.”
A government source said: “We think it would save lives.”
There is nervousness in Whitehall about making moves to force anyone to have a coronavirus injection, given the fear that this could make people who are already vaccine hesitant even more resistant.
However, now that care workers had been eligible for vaccines for months due to their high position on the priority list, the EHRC said some demographic groups that were less likely to get vaccinated were “disproportionately represented in the adult social care sector workforce”.
The EHRC said mandatory vaccination could risk further excluding these groups “from access to employment”, so a proportionate approach with important safeguards was needed.
A similar concern was raised by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine last month in a study that found that health and social care workers who felt under greater pressure from their employers to get a vaccine then became more likely to decline it, causing “damaging effects”.
Sandra Mounier-Jack, one of the lead authors on the study, said social care workers were “already feeling quite vulnerable”. She added: “Increasing the vulnerability of these staff might not be the best way to bring them together with you and [get] a positive uptake of the vaccine that will be sustainable for the long-term so they think it’s positive for them rather than being imposed.”
She added that taking an approach that was less consensual, by mandating the vaccine, would have consequences.
To combat undue discrimination the EHRC said in its advice to the government that people who could not get injections for medical reasons should be exempted and that no one should “face any financial detriment” because of being vaccinated.
The commission raised particular concern that some staff might be reluctant to get jabbed in case they had to take time off work in the rare event of their experiencing severe side-effects.
Statutory sick pay, capped at £96.35 a week, could be “deterring workers from being vaccinated because they cannot afford to take sick leave if they have side-effects”, the EHRC said, adding that with a quarter of the social care workforce on zero-hours contracts, many might not even be eligible for the state financial support.
Strict scrutiny by MPs was also needed with regular reviews, and a sunset clause should be put on any legislation passed by parliament, the watchdog added.
Labour has said “threatening” people over vaccination is “not a good idea”. Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow Commons leader, said: “Given we have got a recruitment crisis in parts of the NHS I think it’s far more important we try and work with staff rather than against them.”