Lucie Mitchell explores the issue of compulsory vaccines for care staff at a time of skills shortages and says employers need to get ready by having open conversations with staff.
The recent announcement by the Government that Covid vaccinations are set to become compulsory for care home staff in England has sparked a big debate amongst all involved.
Current guidance states that, from October, all employees working in a CQC-registered care home in England will have 16 weeks to receive both doses of the vaccine, unless they have a medical exemption. If they refuse, they could face being redeployed or even lose their job.
Yet, given the staff shortages currently facing the sector – and the relatively low numbers of vaccinated care home staff in some areas of the country – what will be the consequences of such a move?
“Making the vaccine compulsory in some care homes could cause significant resourcing problems for affected employers if staff choose not to have the vaccine, despite the possibility that they will lose their job and possibly even their chosen career,” remarks Alan Price, CEO at BrightHR.
To further compound the issue, the GMB Union have said that more than a third of their members in social care would consider leaving their jobs if vaccines were made compulsory.
David Bradley, head of employment law at Ramsdens Solicitors, warns that the situation might not be as straightforward as it may first seem. “Will the Government prohibit the employment of staff who come into contact with care home residents or will they make it fair to remove an employee from such a position if they refuse the vaccine?
“If it is prohibition, there is a real risk that care homes will not cope if material numbers of employees refuse the vaccine. The employer will have to remove those employees from the front line. Will they be able to deliver services on that basis?”
On the other hand, it’s also worth remembering that employees themselves, especially older workers, may feel more comfortable coming to work knowing their colleagues have been vaccinated. A survey by the Chartered Management Institute found that 24% of managers would only work with people who have received both vaccines doses, with that figure rising to 33% among the over 55s.
It’s obviously vitally important to ensure as many people are vaccinated as possible in the fight against Covid, especially those looking after elderly or vulnerable people, yet some are questioning the government’s decision to sack care home workers who refuse the vaccine at a time when employers in the sector are struggling to fill roles.
“I do not like the idea of forcing people to do something against their will and would prefer it to remain a matter of personal choice rather than be compulsory,” says Mike Padgham, chair of the Independent Care Group. “I think the Government hasn’t gone far enough in its efforts to persuade people of the value of the vaccine and is using the blunt instrument of legislation. This will, without doubt, create another barrier to recruitment at a time when social care providers are facing an employment crisis.”
Charlotte Geesin, head of employment law at Howarths, also points out that the statistics need some scrutiny as there has seemingly been a greater vaccine take-up amongst the vulnerable and elderly, which in turn provides protection.
“Arguably then, forcing care home workers to be vaccinated could have a fairly limited impact on the basis that the people they are caring for are already well-protected,” she comments. “That all said, however, there is no doubt that it is wrong to place a certain sector of society at risk of infection, especially when they have very limited control to take care of their own safety and rely on others.”
It is no doubt a difficult and contentious subject, but could there be a chance this is simply a PR exercise by the Government to encourage more people to get vaccinated?
Yes, possibly, remarks Geesin. “If people think their jobs are at risk, this will inevitably have an impact on the way in which some people view things. People may feel they have no choice but to get vaccinated. I would, however, hope this wasn’t the case and that the driver was a genuine attempt to ensure the protection of some of the most vulnerable in our society.”
For now, though, the advice to employers is to start planning for any changes immediately. “Employers should be having conversations with their employees right now,” advises Price. “It’s also important that good recording systems are in place, showing who has had the vaccine and who hasn’t. Having clear policies in place that set out the expectations for staff regarding the vaccine, as well as termination procedures that may result from not having it, is also vital.”
Keep channels of communication with staff open, adds Geesin. “Ultimately their buy-in and understanding will be important to ensure not only the successful roll-out of the new requirements within the workplace, but also the protection of commercial interests. A care home can’t operate if it doesn’t have staff to provide the care.”