“I’m not planning to take the jab because I am breastfeeding,” said Hailey Mulkerrins, a 30-year-old from Southend, one of thousands of care home workers across England yet to have a Covid vaccination.
Although NHS guidance says the vaccine is safe for new or soon-to-be mothers, Mulkerrins, who has worked in the sector for more than four years, said she still has concerns.
She finds her job “incredibly rewarding” yet her future as a carer is uncertain. “I feel as though I have to face the possibility of the jab potentially impacting myself, or worse, my child, or risk losing my job.”
Mulkerrins is not alone in her dilemma. From November 11, all workers in care homes in England registered by the Care Quality Commission must be vaccinated unless exempt.
The prospect of mandatory jabs has been met with dismay among care leaders and employers, as well as some staff, who warn the policy has exacerbated staffing shortages, encouraging people to resign and deterring new entrants from signing up.
The new law follows concern within government over the take up of vaccines among care staff who work with the elderly, one of the groups most vulnerable to Covid. About 8 per cent of adult care workers remain unvaccinated, according to data from September 9.
About 570,000 people work in CQC-registered care homes, with 7 per cent, or 40,000 people, expected to remain unvaccinated by the time the policy comes into effect, according to government data.
Helen Whately, minister for care, hinted on Thursday that unvaccinated employees could be deployed elsewhere within healthcare, such as manning emergency helplines.
Staff have until September 16 to come forward for their first dose. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not introduced similar policies.
“Before the pandemic there were already 120,000 vacancies in the sector,” said Nadra Ahmed, chair of the National Care Association, an organisation that supports small to medium-sized care providers.
“The legislation feels ill-thought-out and has created what can only be described as a mass exodus from the sector,” she added.
A survey by the Institute of Health and Social Care Management and the Press Association revealed that at 28 per cent of care homes one in five members of staff had already handed in their notice citing concerns over mandatory vaccination.
“I completely understand why families would want staff vaccinated,” said Dawn Bunter, a former care home manager, based in Norfolk.
Bunter describes herself as “pro-vaccine” and noted that the early days of the pandemic were “horrific”, when mortality rates within care homes surged, as staff grappled with a lack of clear government guidance and testing capacity. Since then, ministers have been keen to pledge additional protections for elderly homes.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 66,112 deaths were registered within care homes in England and Wales between March 2 and June 12, 2020. Just under 30 per cent — 19,394 — involved Covid-19.
Bunter, who last month left the sector after more than 20 years of service, said the policy was beginning to impact the NHS, with homes unable to take on eligible residents from hospitals due to a lack of staff.
She also questioned the practicality of mandatory jabs for staff while residents and visitors go unchecked.
Last week, Care England, which represents social care providers, wrote to health secretary Sajid Javid asking for clarity on when the list outlining grounds for exemption will be published.
“Many providers haven’t been given enough information by the government,” said Mark Topps, regional care business manager for a care provider operating in south-east England.
“At the moment, it is very much each care home finding out the relevant information, sitting down with staff who are hesitant about the jab and understanding their concerns and then going away and trying to find the answers to reassure and persuade workers,” he said.
He noted that in absence of clear guidance, care homes have begun seeking legal advice. “There are a lot of people in the sector — managers and those on the ground — who are close to burnout over this.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said that it was working with local authorities and providers to ensure that the sector had the “right number of staff with the skills to deliver high quality care to meet increasing demands”.
For employees who have chosen to remain in the sector the policy has proved demoralising, said Mike Padgham, chair of the Independent Care Group. “There are staff who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic who are being rewarded with the risk of losing their jobs,” he said.
One care worker told the Financial Times it was “a common misconception that unvaccinated care workers were rampant anti-vaxxers. Most were slightly hesitant due to religious or cultural reasons or worried about the impact of the jab on their fertility”.
Mulkerrins has not ruled out the possibility of having the jab at a later date. “I love my job,” she said.