Fears Covid vaccine mandate for NHS staff will reduce already 'critically low’ staff numbers

NURSES in Portsmouth are calling for mandatory Covid vaccines for frontline medics to be scrapped amid fears it will exacerbate already ‘critically low’ staff numbers - and branding it a ‘kick in the teeth’ for all those who worked throughout the pandemic.

Healthcare representatives and staff in the city have warned the ultimatum to have both jabs by April 1 will add to a growing list of pressures facing the sector and have far reaching consequences.

Nationally it is thought the move will see around 80,000 NHS workers quit as a result of the mandate, with 5.4 per cent of all affected staff unvaccinated as of January 16.

Unless the government U-turns on its plans it will be the first mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers in England, as others - including jabs for hepatitis B - are ‘strongly recommended’ rather than enforced.

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One end-of-life nurse from Southsea, who did not want to be named, is expecting to have to give up her career of 40 years as she is unwilling to get the Covid vaccine for a combination of personal, medical and religious reasons.

The 63-year-old told The News: ‘Over the past two years I have covered so many shifts for colleagues who have had Covid. There were no vaccines then but the government was quite happy for me to work extra hours then.

‘Lots of us were working extra shifts when there wasn’t always enough PPE but we were working really well together. It is a bit of a kick in the teeth from the government.

Sarah Johnston, Royal College Of Nursing south east operational manager, said the RCN did not support any mandatory vaccines

‘It is also not a case of vaccinated nurses against unvaccinated nurses, it’s not like that. Everyone just wants to work together the best they can. And the fewer of us there are the more difficult that is.

‘It seems wrong, we have worked all through the pandemic and now they can say this to thousands of people in the same boat as me.

‘We have patients and families coming in who don’t have to be vaccinated who could be bringing the virus in with them and the government allows that.’

She added: ‘I became a nurse because my dad died of cancer when I was 23. And I knew I wanted to work in end-of-life care.

QA Hospital, Portsmouth on Thursday 25th November 2021 Pictured: GV of inside of QA medical wards Picture Habibur Rahman

‘It’s really hard to think that after all these years it will be coming to an end.’

The deadline to have both vaccines by April 1 means the cut-off for a first dose is February 3, and the Royal College of GPs has asked for a delay to give workers more time to get jabbed.

But despite protests by thousands of healthcare workers through central London and other major cities on January 23, the government has not yet budged.

Picture: Sarah Standing (010221-1991)

Liz Jeremiah, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Portsmouth branch chair and south east regional representative on the Trade Union Committee, said: ‘Nurses in Portsmouth have been under enormous pressure for a number of years. Pre-Covid there were roughly 50,000 nurses short across the UK.

‘Staffing issues have been problematic for a very long time, across all four countries but the RCN’s repeat warnings to the government to address this properly have fallen on deaf ears year on year. The pandemic has merely amplified this pre-existing issue nationwide.

‘Anything that risks threatening staff levels further, including any Covid vaccine mandates, staff sickness, burnout and continuing failure to address our very real concerns about the lack of any meaningful pay rise will continue to be a problem our nurses face day in and out.’

And the south east operational manager for the RCN, Sarah Johnston, said although they support the use of vaccines against Covid they did not support any vaccines being mandatory.

‘We would urge staff who have not yet had the vaccine to discuss their concerns with their employer and to make sure they have all the information they need,’ she said.

‘The RCN has called on the health secretary to delay the implementation of this law due to concerns it could exacerbate already critically low staffing levels. Even before the pandemic, there weren’t enough nurses to support health and social care properly with more than 40,000 registered nursing vacancies.

‘The demands of the pandemic have led to nurses leaving the profession and being off sick so that services are now stretched like never before.

‘The situation in Portsmouth is no different to anywhere else in the country. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just an acute hospital problem, this will affect the whole health and social care system.’

However, other health bodies in the city are encouraging workers to get vaccinated if they haven’t already, describing it as the ‘best defence’ in the fight against Covid-19.

The city’s largest NHS employer, Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust (PHU) - which runs QA Hospital - would not disclose how many staff are not yet vaccinated.

However, NHS England data shows 97 per cent of the 7,882 health care workers at the city had received at least one vaccination by the end of December, meaning 233 were unvaccinated at that point.

Of the 7,882, 7,487 workers had received two jabs and 6,483 had received a booster dose.

A spokeswoman for PHU said: ‘The majority of our colleagues have already had their second jab and we continue encouraging those who haven’t to get protected against Covid-19.

‘We know vaccination offers the best protection against the virus and are supporting staff who are not yet vaccinated to take up the offer of the first and second doses before April 1, 2022, when government regulations come into effect.

‘Thank you to all of our colleagues and the public who have already had their vaccinations.’

Roger Batterbury, chairman of Healthwatch Portsmouth, agreed. He said: ‘Throughout the pandemic Healthwatch Portsmouth has supported the scientific evidence base for all decisions taken to help protect ourselves against Covid -19.

‘We have been approached by health service staff about their concerns on the requirement of getting the vaccine by the deadline, but we have also spoken with health service staff who are fully supportive of the plan.

‘Healthwatch Portsmouth knows that our health and social care workers look after the most vulnerable people in society, who could face serious health consequences if they are exposed to the virus. We believe that ensuring front-line staff are fully vaccinated is the right thing to do to protect patients and those in care.

‘We know from the data that the vast majority of NHS staff and frontline care staff have been fully vaccinated which is the best defence against Covid-19.’

If implemented the mandate applies to all NHS staff, health and social care workers, and volunteers working in England who have face-to-face contact with patients.

They will need to provide evidence that they have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 unless they are medically exempt.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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