ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on how frontline health workers have reacted to the government's U-turn on compulsory jabs for NHS staff in England
The government has halted controversial plans for the compulsory Covid vaccination of all frontline NHS and social care workers in England, just days ahead of the first jab deadline.
Addressing the House of Commons, the health secretary said the government was "looking again" at scrapping the measure in a bid to avoid a damaging confrontation with NHS workers in England.
In a U-turn, Sajid Javid said a consultation on ending compulsory vaccinations in health and social care settings will be launched.
Mr Javid said the much criticised jab mandate was informed by the severity of the Delta variant, which was dominant when the previous consultation took place last year.
But now the less severe Omicron variant, which currently represents over 99% of infections in the UK, has replaced Delta, he says it is only right the policy was reviewed, with the vaccine roll out being so successful.
"I believe it is no longer proportionate to require vaccination as a condition of deployment through statute," Mr Javid said.
"Today I am announcing that we will launch a consultation on ending vaccination as a condition of deployment in health and all social care settings."
The regulations will be revoked when Parliament approves the changes, he added.
Ministers have been facing pressure to put back the requirement for frontline NHS staff in England to be double-jabbed by April 1, meaning they would need their first dose by Thursday.
It is estimated that around 77,000 frontline NHS workers in England face losing their jobs at a time when the health service is creaking under Covid pandemic pressures, with a huge backlog to deal with.
A similar vaccination policy has been 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.
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The Royal College of Nursing said the change in severity of the Omicron variant and the number of NHS vacancies meant the mandatory jab policy should be scrapped.
Many health care workers have welcomed the announcement, which will prevent an exodus of scores of frontline staff.
Tamara Parker, a community midwife who has had Covid twice, said the policy reversal has come as a relief to much of her workplace, as she described feeling anxious in the run up to the vaccination deadline.
Ms Parker - who said that along with half of her immediate colleagues, does not believe in being forced into having a jab - said office morale has significantly improved.
"Whether someone was going to get it or not, I thought they felt that's not a choice anymore and that is a really fundamental principle of our profession."
'I do feel like my mental health was suffering,' Ms Parker said
Louise Akester, a former care worker who lost her job after refusing to get vaccinated, is also among those who welcomed the government U-turn.
"If they are addressing with the NHS, then surely they are going to re-address it for the carers as well," she told ITV News.
"Why should we be the ones that have had to suffer?"
Having to say goodbye to colleagues after being dismissed for refusing to get jabbed was the 'hardest thing she'd ever had to do', ex-care worker Louise Akester said.
But whether mandatory or not, experts have said the fact remains that vaccination is still the most effective way of reducing the risk of serious illness from Covid infection and spreading the virus.
Penny Ward, visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London, told ITV News that healthcare workers should be willing to have the vaccine without compulsion, given these benefits.
"Because vaccination reduces the possibility of becoming infected, and because there is some evidence that it can reduce transmission, it does seem logical that a person working in a healthcare setting ought to be willing to have the vaccine," she said.
Her comments come after Mr Javid said plans for compulsory jabs were made when the Delta variant was the dominant strain in the UK, but now “almost all” cases are the Omicron strain which is “intrinsically less severe”.
The latest figures from NHS England show that 127,515 NHS and domiciliary care staff working in registered settings had not had a first dose of a Covid vaccine as of January 23.
Giving the statement on NHS vaccinations on Monday evening, he told MPs that while overall cases and hospitalisations continue to fall, we must be cautious as cases in primary and secondary children are rising.
While the government is seeking to end the legal mandate, Mr Javid has written to health regulators asking them to urgently review guidance to registrants on vaccinations “to emphasise their professional responsibilities in this area”. He has also asked the NHS to review its policies on hiring new staff and deploying current staff, taking into account their vaccination status.
Today's move came despite the Department of Health and Social Care saying last Monday there were no plans to change the policy, following a number of reports suggesting ministers were considering an 11th-hour delay. The health secretary then said on Tuesday that the policy is being “kept under review".
There are no plans in Scotland and Wales to make Covid vaccines compulsory for NHS workers or care home staff, while there will be a public consultation on the issue in Northern Ireland.