Making the Covid vaccine compulsory for NHS staff is not an easy choice – but it is the right one

Sajid Javid is showing the kind of strong leadership we need in a health secretary

Sean O'Grady
Monday 25 October 2021 16:43
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Sajid Javid ‘leaning towards’ compulsory Covid vaccines for NHS staff

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The health secretary, Sajid Javid is “leaning towards” making vaccination against Covid-19 a condition of employment for NHS staff. Obviously any NHS staff who fall into the category clinically vulnerable and cannot take the vaccine even if they want to will have to be redeployed to less sensitive roles or just kept out of the way of high-risk patients, but there need be no other major exemptions. Indeed the rule should apply to agency staff and of course care homes, which Javid has already acted on.

Saj the Jab also says he’ll be wearing a mask on Budget day, given that the chamber of the House of Commons will be a classic crowded environment, where the government advice is to use a face covering. He is standing up to the anti-vax bullies and their increasingly threatening tactics – like putting a scaffold up in Parliament Square and delivering pretend legal papers to busy hospital reception areas.

Having – at least it seemed to me – pandered a bit in the past to the anti-lockdown, anti-mask acolytes when he got the job, and despite some big talk about ignoring Sage advice, he seems to be doing the right thing, listening to experts, and showing some leadership. It will do his political ambitions no harm. A winter NHS crisis or emergency lockdown, on the other hand, will make his position about as secure as Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (at the time of writing).

The decision to enforce mandatory vaccination isn’t one that should be taken lightly, and it won’t be by Javid. It does impinge on freedoms but not, I would suggest, on human rights or violate the principle of consent. There is a choice about where you work. Indeed, one of the risks in the policy is that some dedicated people will choose to leave the health and care sectors and work elsewhere, and they are free to do so. That is the fear of Labour leader Keir Starmer who said during an interview on Good Morning Britain that it is “better to encourage and cajole” than force them to get their Covid jabs.

“The problem I fear we’re going to get is you’re going to have thousands of NHS staff who can't work any longer, just when we have got massive vacancies in the NHS as it is,” he added.

We need to be sensible about this. Vaccination helps reduce the chance of Covid spreading, both at the individual level and at the level of the group, in hospitals and the wider community. It doesn’t eliminate Covid or cure it, or entirely stop asymptomatic spread, but it may well reduce it. That is enough to make it mandatory in these settings. Similar arguments apply to mask wearing in health care settings. Quite simply, it will save granny’s life.

Besides, we routinely require people to agree to take certain precautions in certain environments - hair nets and hygiene in food preparation and factories, for example. As we all know, you need a special licence to drive a train, a bus or an HGV. Surgeons are required to have a jab for hepatitis. Solicitors have to be qualified to organise your house sale or divorce. If a teacher or a child turns up to school with a streaming cold they should be sent home.

Virtually everything we do requires some infringement on liberty, but we shrug and accept it, because the rights – and welfare – of others have also to be accounted for. A vaccine is a special case, because of that physical intrusion, but, as with the hepatitis jab for surgeons, it is about the environment they work in. No one should enjoy an absolute right to potentially infect others.

So Javid is entirely right, and is showing the kind of strong leadership we need in a health secretary. He has, it appears, won fresh funds to deal with the pressures on the NHS, and is prepared to push GPs to respond to what their patients want, and reform the NHS where necessary. All this might or might not be good for his career, but it’s very good for the country’s national health.

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