Opinion

Mandatory vaccinations leave the care sector under-appreciated and at risk

Neil Russell, Chair, PJ Care

It was with dismay, though little surprise, I received the news that the government plans to make COVID vaccinations for care home staff compulsory.

It shows a lack of acknowledgement of the current staffing crisis the sector is facing and the potential this has to exacerbate the situation.

I am in complete support of staff being vaccinated.  We continue to provide staff with the latest information and, to date, the majority have had both their jabs and the conversion rate is increasing all the time.

But this plan fails to recognise their concerns.  It assumes all staff are coming from a viewpoint – in terms of culture, education, life-stage etc. – similar to that of the decision-makers and with careful explanation of the facts will ‘see sense’ and do the right thing.

It also flies in the face of the results of the government’s own consultation.  57% of the 13,500 respondents were AGAINST compulsory vaccinations for care staff.

Service users and their families were mostly opposed to the plan which suggests at strong relationships and understanding between carers and those they look after.  This may be them saying they would rather have the care of someone who hasn’t been vaccinated than no-one at all.

Because mandating vaccinations has the potential to cause a staffing crisis.  The GMB union suggests more than a third of its members who are care staff will leave the profession.  Even if that figure were closer to 15 or 20% in reality, it would still mean losing up to 300,000 of the 1.5 million employed in social care in the UK.

Carers are not queuing around the block and with Brexit having had a considerable impact on our ability to draw staff from Europe, the result would be a fight for the carers who remain.

This would drive up wages which would result in financial problems for many homes, and, indeed, families and local authorities.  While operators may be able to absorb some of the increased cost, much of it would have to be passed on to those paying the bill.

Beds would be lost and some homes would have to close.  People in need of care would then have nowhere to go but into hospitals that are already struggling with bed availability.

If the government truly wants to protect ‘the most vulnerable’ then any mandatory vaccination programme should start in the NHS as that’s where the most vulnerable are.  Even if care staff are vaccinated, residents could still be admitted to hospital to be cared for by someone who hasn’t.

The NHS has the same recruitment issues as the care industry but if their staff do not need vaccinating, where are care staff going to go?  Is this just a clever scheme to re-staff a failing NHS?

Questions have been put to me about staff having a ‘duty of care’ towards residents and being vaccinated being a key demonstration of that.  I find the implication that we are otherwise willingly putting our residents at risk hugely insulting.

While being vaccinated lowers the risk of transmission and infection, strict infection control protocols and the use of PPE remain the best methods of protection.

This move feels like a lack of respect for care staff who have given so much during the pandemic.  It assumes they can easily be replaced by people who have a greater sense of duty or responsibility to the elderly and the vulnerable.  If my staff are anything to go by, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Care is not an ‘unskilled’ profession and many have ambitions to progress their skills, take on greater responsibility and even train to become nurses.

But above all, they care for the people they see every day.  These can be relationships built up over several years, not just with residents but with their families too.  I would hate to have to terminate the employment of any of my staff because they didn’t feel able, for whatever reason, to accept a COVID vaccination.

Neil Russell is the Chair of PJ Care, an award-winning, leading independent provider of specialist neurological care and rehabilitation for adults with progressive neurological conditions and acquired brain injuries.

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