Health Secretary Sajid Javid now looks set to drop his plans to sack unvaccinated NHS staff. It was almost inevitable given the practical difficulties that come with sacking more than 70,000 workers who showed little sign of changing their minds — all while the NHS is desperately trying to catch up with missed treatments following the pandemic.
Javid is expected to say that the far milder Omicron variant has changed his calculation: Covid is no longer a threat that would necessitate compulsory vaccination. In reality, his bluff was about to be called. NHS staff would have to be vaccinated by Thursday to be double-jabbed in time for the 1 April deadline — and there was no sign that the unvaccinated (especially those with recovery immunity) would change their minds in any significant number.
The wonder is why the government thought things would end differently. An official impact assessment from November last year revealed that the Department of Health never expected the sanctions to persuade more than a small proportion of NHS staff. At that point, 92 per cent of NHS staff were believed to have had at least one jab while 89 per cent were fully vaccinated. But the policy was only expected to persuade a further 1.5 per cent of the workforce to be vaccinated. Allowing for 30,000 staff who were believed to be exempt from vaccination it was expected that 73,000 staff would remain unvaccinated and not exempt — and therefore liable for the sack. That equates to 4.9 per cent of the total NHS workforce.
So why did the government plough on with a policy that it expected to lead to the NHS having to sack nearly one in 20 staff when it was under such pressure? The whole premise of the policy was wrong, in any case. While repeated studies have shown Covid vaccines to be highly effective at preventing serious illness and death, they have also shown vaccines to be a lot less effective at preventing infection. Indeed, two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered months ago have been found to offer negligible protection against infection with Omicron (although a UKHSA report suggested last week that AstraZeneca and Pfizer do offer greater protections against serious illness from Omicron). Surely, if the aim was to protect patients then the government should have focused on the regular testing of staff — or obliged those with two AstraZeneca vaccines to take a Pfizer booster. Staff who refuse to be vaccinated may be putting themselves at greater risk of suffering serious illness — but that was never supposed to be the justification for the policy.
Throughout the latter half of the pandemic when vaccines have been available, there has been a tendency to try to paint those who have refused to be vaccinated as either ‘anti-vaxxers’ or victims of extremist propaganda. The sight of NHS staff protesting in the streets against compulsory vaccination presented a rather different picture. Steve James, an unjabbed ICU doctor who confronted Javid during a hospital visit, asked in The Spectator why he needed a vaccine given that he had antibodies already. Javid couldn’t provide an answer.
When you are trying to persuade the general population to get vaccinated, the fact that many thousands of NHS staff have chosen not to be vaccinated — and are prepared to lose their jobs over it — is highly inconvenient. But the strategy of compulsory vaccination has merely served to draw attention to this group, and the limits of coercive policies in democracies.
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