Experts express concern over compulsory vaccines for care home workers

Employers in the sector could struggle to enforce a vaccine mandate, commentators say, and caution other organisations against following suit

Covid-19 vaccinations are set to become compulsory for care home staff in England as part of new legislation announced by the government yesterday. 

Under the new rules, from October this year anyone working in a care home where residents need nursing or personal care will need to have had two doses of a Covid vaccine. 

This will apply to all workers employed by the care home, agency workers, volunteers, and anyone coming into the care home to do work, unless they are medically exempt.

The legislation is still subject to parliamentary approval, and there will be a 16-week grace period from when the new law comes into effect.

The government has said it would also consult on whether to extend the vaccination mandate beyond care homes to cover care workers who work with other vulnerable groups.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “We have a responsibility to do all we can to safeguard those receiving care including in the NHS and so will be consulting further on whether to extend to other health and social care workers.

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“This is the right thing to do and a vitally important step to continue protecting care homes now and in the future. I’d urge anyone working in care homes to get their jab as soon as possible.”

However, while a vaccination mandate would lower the risk of the virus in care homes, Laura Kearsley, partner at Nelsons, said such a requirement wasn’t straightforward. “The worry for the care sector is the impact this might have on recruitment and staff retention, given that there is already a shortage of staff in this sector,” she said.

“The detail of how this is to be implemented remains to be seen but this unprecedented move could prove unpopular with care staff who do not wish to have the vaccine.”

Emma Bartlett, partner at CM Murray, also cautioned that the demographic groups that were least likely to be vaccinated were also disproportionately represented in the workforce of the adult social care sector. “There is clearly a risk that mandatory vaccination could indirectly discriminate against certain demographic groups, who might lose access to care sector employment,” she said.

A proportionate approach to the legislation was “essential”, said Bartlett. ”It is important to ensure the obligation is no wider than necessary and includes exemptions where appropriate.”

Compulsory vaccinations could also create a “significant resourcing problem” for employers in the care sector if staff choose not to get the jab, said Alan Price, chief executive of BrightHR. 

“One important consideration for employers is that, if it comes to terminating employment, a full and fair procedure will still be needed,” he said, “A change in the law on vaccines in this way does not mean an exemption from normal rules on achieving a fair dismissal.”

The news has also raised questions among experts as to what this means more widely for other employers.

Last week, Pimlico Plumbers – which has been very vocal about its ‘no jab, no job’ policy –  published its first job advert explicitly stating candidates should be vaccinated.

Suzanne Staunton, partner at JMW Solicitors, said it was a “very bold move” and cautioned employers to be careful if they wanted to implement a similar requirement. “Very few employers, sectors and industries will be able to show that it is reasonable, justifiable or proportionate and necessary to make vaccinations mandatory across a workforce,” she said.

Lucy Lewis, partner at Lewis Silkin, said the new legislation was unlikely to lead to any wider vaccine mandate in the private sector. “What is more likely is that we will see a vaccine requirement for certain roles,” she said, “For example, roles which require travel to particular countries but entry to those countries is not permitted without a vaccine.

“As employers have a duty to reduce workplace risk, they should not feel they need to sit on the sidelines of the vaccine debate and active engagement with employees is expected.”

Asked whether she thought the vaccine mandate should be extended to clinical staff in the NHS, Prerana Issar, chief people officer at the NHS, said 95 per cent of the health service’s staff were already vaccinated.

Speaking at the CIPD’s Festival of Work today, Issar said: “The world that we live in is that healthcare professionals have taken this very seriously, and everybody in healthcare is getting the jab.”

She added that this was a “moment of change” for  society more broadly. “We just need to look at the way the world is going in terms of needing the vaccination to travel, needing the vaccination to go to events, et cetera.

“If a cinema says you can’t come in unless you’re vaccinated, is that forcing, or is that a condition of entry? I think that’s a conversation we all as society will be having.”