The requirement for all NHS workers to be jabbed against Covid-19 is being “kept under review,” the health secretary has said, as the deadline fast approaches for unvaccinated staff.
Sajid Javid said it was “right” to reflect on coronavirus policies when asked by MPs about mandatory vaccines for NHS workers in England, amid fierce calls for the policy to be scrapped as 77,000 face losing their jobs.
He said that plans for compulsory jabs for frontline workers were made when the Delta variant of the virus was the dominant strain in the UK, but now “almost all” cases are the Omicron variant which is “intrinsically less severe”.
However, Mr Javid insisted frontline NHS workers should get a jab as a "professional duty" and that patient safety was the "principal" reason behind the decision to make vaccines mandatory.
The government has made it a legal requirement for all NHS workers in England to have had two doses of a vaccine by April 1 as a condition of their employment.
In order for staff to meet the requirement they will have needed their first jab by February 3.
NHS workers who face losing their jobs and protesters opposed to mandatory vaccinations told ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers why they are against the policy
Exemptions will be given to those who do not have face to face contact with patients and those who are medically exempt.
A similar policy is in force for staff in registered care homes in England - they must have both jabs as a condition of deployment, unless they are exempt for valid medical reasons.
Crowds of anti-Covid vaccine protesters and NHS staff took to the streets of cities across England to demonstrate against the policy on Saturday.
Protesters told ITV News they wanted to make their own "informed choice".
"We're not going to be bullied or coerced into having something that we don't want," midwife Kamera Marley said.
Jane Venables, a mental health bank nurse, said: "I will lose my job and I am happy for that because I believe in the principles of why we're all here... informed choice."
Both the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Nursing have called for a delay to the policy, while the British Medical Association insisted an “urgent impact assessment” on how the policy will affect staffing numbers should be carried out.
Mr Javid said that while almost 95% of NHS staff have had at least one jab, 77,000 staff in England are yet to be vaccinated.
“I think it is right in light of Omicron that we reflect on all this and keep all Covid policies properly under review because Omicron is different to Delta, equally we don’t know what the next variant is going to be, but we are reflecting on all this,” he told the Health and Social Care select committee of MPs.
He said people had “made representations” to him about Omicron being “very different” to Delta, in that while the former is more transmissible it is “intrinsically less severe”.
On Monday the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) doubled down on the policy and said there are no plans to change it, after a number of reports suggested ministers were considering an eleventh-hour delay.
'I'm 100% not going to be having the vaccination so if this goes ahead I will lose my job,' medical secretary Mirren Brewer told ITV Central
Asked about the issue, Mr Javid said: “Since the mandate, since we announced a consultation in September, we’ve had around 100,000 in the NHS that were unvaccinated at that point that have come forward. So there’s been a very good response."
“I think it’s also reasonable to assume that not everyone ultimately is going to come forward,” he added.
Mr Javid added that some of the unvaccinated staff would be in back office roles and not subject to the policy.
Meanwhile, Mr Javid told the committee that people should learn to live alongside Covid-19 “like we do for the flu”.
He also said that the “living with Covid plan” for the UK, which will be published in the spring, will set out how the UK plans to deal with new variants and how the NHS will plan for “surge capacity” as and when it is needed.
“It’s about understanding we do now have defences which we didn’t have before and just as sort of flu doesn’t stop society and stop life, we mustn’t let Covid do that any more,” he added.
Mr Javid was also asked by MPs about comments by former NHS boss Lord Stevens, who accused the government of “wilful blindness” over the need for better workforce planning in health and social care.
He said he agreed on “the importance he (Lord Stevens) attaches to the workforce and the need for a long-term plan on the workforce”.
But he added: “The bit I wouldn’t agree with is the sort of idea that there’s no… the government doesn’t have a plan to deal with these workforce pressures.”
He also said the NHS was considering “radical plans” to tackle the backlog of care built up during the pandemic.