Plans to make Covid-19 jabs compulsory for NHS staff are under consideration, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Sunday, as he revealed that the government aimed to have all over-50s fully inoculated by June 21, the proposed date for England to exit the final stage of lockdown.
Zahawi said it was the government’s responsibility to consider how best to protect the most vulnerable in hospitals. Ministers said in April they were looking at the practicalities of compulsory vaccinations for all care home workers to protect elderly residents, following concerns about uptake among staff.
“We’ve recently consulted on social care frontline staff in terms of duty of care to those who are most vulnerable . . . I think it’s only right that we look at the healthcare system as well,” Zahawi told Sky News, in response to a report in the Sunday Telegraph that ministers were discussing mandatory vaccinations for health workers.
“It’s absolutely the right thing, it would be incumbent on any responsible government to have the debate, to do the thinking, as to how we go about protecting the most vulnerable by making sure that those who look after them are vaccinated,” he said, adding that there was precedent in the NHS with surgeons required to be vaccinated against hepatitis B.
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow leader of the House of Commons, expressed some concerns over the plan, arguing that the government ought to be working with the NHS in order to understand why some workers may be reluctant to take up their jab.
“Given we’ve 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,” she said in an interview with Sky News.
Zahawi said he remained focused on vaccinating at “scale” and hoped to provide all over-50s with two doses of a Covid vaccine before June 21, the earliest date by which the government has promised to lift the final lockdown rules in England.
Concerns mounted last week about plans to lift the last of the restrictions towards the end of June due to a rise in coronavirus infections, driven by the spread of the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India.
Ministers and officials have so far insisted there were no indications in the data to suggest a delay was needed, not least as the vaccine programme appeared to be breaking the link between infections and hospitalisation.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to take final decisions by June 14 and is waiting for key data on the transmissibility of the B.1.617.2 variant, which officials hoped would be available this week.
“We have to look at the data and we will share that with the country. It would be completely wrong for me to now speculate,” Zahawi told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.
More than 39m people across the UK have had their first jab, while nearly 25m have now been fully inoculated with both doses, according to the latest data from Saturday.
Meanwhile, Zahawi was forced to defend Matt Hancock who remains under pressure over claims the health secretary lied about testing of elderly hospital patients discharged into care homes in the early stages of the pandemic last year.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, claimed last week that Hancock had promised colleagues that patients being sent into care homes would be tested.
The Sunday Times reported that Hancock was warned as early as March last year about the risks of discharging hospital patients into care homes without testing. About 30,000 care home residents are thought to have died from the virus.
Zahawi insisted Hancock had used “every resource available” to save lives, adding that testing capacity was limited last year.