Shortly before Christmas, I wrote in these pages about why, in my view, the Covid vaccine should be made a contractual requirement for healthcare workers. A three-line whip. No excuses.
I knew what I was saying was likely to stoke some controversy. And, indeed, it did.
I’m against mandatory vaccination in general. But when it comes to NHS and care staff, I have a different view.
You shouldn’t be able to work with patients in a hospital or care home unless you’ve had the jab. That should go for doctors and nurses, as well as all support and admin staff, cleaners, porters – every single employee, full-time, part-time, agency or otherwise. And it needs to happen without delay.
Why am I so strident? Well, as it was first revealed by this newspaper, thousands of people died in the first wave of the pandemic from Covid they caught in hospital. It’s a shocking state of affairs, and the problem is ongoing.
Hospitals have become good at testing patients for Covid on arrival, limiting visits and putting those who are positive on separate wards. But it’s no use if nurses, doctors and other staff are wandering between them, unprotected themselves, therefore at high risk, and also, possibly unknowingly, carrying the virus.
We already know that the new Oxford vaccine not only protects the individual from illness, but also reduces transmission by at least 30 per cent.
Vaccinating the entire workforce, combined with testing could help end this problem pretty much straight away. We all would benefit. But it would mean full compliance: every patient-facing worker having the jab.
Doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine arrive at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, West Sussex
On social media, my views were received in some quarters with predictable anger and personal insults were hurled my way. One person even threatened to inject me with a deadly poison.
It should be noted that many more, including nurses and doctors, said they thought my suggestion was a good one.
But there were some worrying posts: ‘I know several NHS staff who wouldn’t touch it [the vaccine] with a barge-pole,’ commented one. When asked for more examples, they replied: ‘A nurse, and a trained paramedic.’ And this one: ‘We work for the NHS and we are not lab rats.’ Or this, from someone in Blackburn: ‘I work in health and don’t know anyone who wants to take the vaccine.’
I could go on, and I have to say the posts didn’t come as a shock. You see, this whole subject has long been a passion of mine. Day to day, I’m a science writer and broadcaster, but I sat for many years on the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation, the body that provides advice to the Government on who to give vaccines to.
Although I’m no longer part of it, I worked closely with the Department of Health during the swine flu pandemic of 2009. And that’s how I came to discover that the NHS has an appalling track record when it comes to vaccinating its workforce.
Back then, the flu jab uptake by hospital staff was dismal – under 30 per cent nationally, and even lower in some areas. It’s now 75 per cent, but that’s not good enough given that flu can kill vulnerable patients.
It’s well known there are anti-vaxers within the NHS workforce, just as it does elsewhere in society. But their view is not compatible with patient care. Some say no jab, no job, but I don’t believe people should be sacked – and there are valid reasons some people can’t be vaccinated. But if you havn’t had the jab, for whatever reason, you shouldn’t be anywhere near a patient.
I should probably admit that, now, it’s also become personal. Two weeks before Christmas, my husband and I caught Covid. And it probably came from hospital.
My sister, who has been very careful throughout the pandemic, exchanged Christmas presents with my husband and me and we spent some time together outdoors on the last weekend of November (this was well before the Christmas lockdown was announced, and we live in the Cotswolds, which was at the time in tier 2).
The following day she started coughing and had a Covid test. On the Monday, she called to tell us that she was positive.
By the following Wednesday, my husband and I were both feeling unwell – me with a banging headache, muscle aches and pains, and him feeling achy and exhausted.
Off we went for a drive-through test – even though, technically, we did not have the required symptoms of fever, cough and a loss of smell, I was pretty sure what it was.
A patient is transported out of an ambulance by medics wearing PPE at the Royal London Hospital
My husband tested positive and I tested negative, though I don’t for a second believe this result. Although my husband’s symptoms didn’t change, I developed a cough, but not fever. On the eighth or ninth day – it must have been Christmas Day or Boxing Day – we both began to feel really rough.
There were night sweats and grim aches and pains.
And then, a few days later, I woke up and it was gone. We’ve both been fine since.
Despite my sister giving Test & Trace our details, we were never contacted. Once we’d had our tests, my husband was contacted – and he was, helpfully, given three different dates for when his period of self-isolation could end.
I’m a scientist by training and, I have to admit, the whole experience was fascinating.
We live in an area that at the time had a very low incidence of Covid. We’d seen no one and had only been to the supermarket.
So we must have got it from my sister. She’d been pretty much shielding since the start of the pandemic – she’s asthmatic and over 60. But the week before she got ill, she’d visited her local NHS hospital for a routine scan.
Test & Trace staff were sure this is where she had picked it up, and then given it to us.
And so we too had probably been hit by ‘hospital Covid’. The irony was not lost on me. It’s also strengthened my resolve: we’ve got to get all NHS staff vaccinated – and fast.
In truth, healthcare staff should always have been at the front of the queue for a jab, not the elderly. Even the World Health Organisation recommends this.
It’s an easy win: the NHS employs about 1.4 million people, while social care employs a further 1.6 million. The majority, it must be noted, would jump at the chance of getting the jab, and you could vaccinate all of them in a matter of weeks.
As frontline workers, who are more vital than ever now, their own health is at risk without it.
Doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine are logged by a technical officer, after they arrive at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, West Sussex
We should never forget the hundreds of doctors and nurses who have died in this pandemic, simply doing their job.
It’s shocking that they’re being expected to deal with this terrifying new tidal wave of cases without having been given a vaccine. Prioritising older folk who can easily stay put for a bit longer, and not the carers we all need right now, is doing things backwards. There’s no point in 95-year-old Arthur Bloggins being vaccinated if the people he, and those like him, rely on for all their health needs are off sick with Covid.
Worryingly, last week this newspaper spoke to staff working at one NHS hospital vaccine hub who admitted that not all those administering the jabs had had it themselves. Why on God’s Earth not? They’re being exposed to hundreds of potentially infected people every day – and we definitely need them to stay healthy.
As I made very clear in my previous article, you can’t force anyone to have a vaccine against their will. That’s assault.
But hospitals already demand that anyone working in an operating theatre produce evidence that they’ve had a hepatitis B vaccination. It’s a blood-borne infection, and they don’t take any chances – so why not the same with Covid?
After my piece was published, I appeared on the BBC Politics Show to talk about it. A hospital administrator on the panel told me that it was a non-story because all of his staff were desperate to have the vaccine. I have no reason to doubt him, but studies of health staff tell a different story.
There are between seven and 15 per cent of healthcare workers who would refuse a vaccine. Another 20 per cent say they want more information and assurance before having it.
That’s fine – they should be given the facts. But if people do refuse, they cannot work on the front line.
One utterly cynical online commentator, who claimed to be working as an NHS nurse, wrote: ‘Try and force this vaccine on me and I, and most of my colleagues, will walk. It’ll take 24 hours before my Trust will be begging us back to work, no vaccine, guaranteed.’
This was not the only such missive that I received. Of course, I don’t want people to feel forced or railroaded. But, if not for their own protection, it should be seen as a moral obligation.
As one healthcare worker from Oswestry, Shropshire, who commented on my article, said: ‘Many of my patients are extremely vulnerable. We have a duty of care to them, so I always have my flu jab. And I’ll have the Covid jab as soon as possible.’
I’ve had Covid. You really don’t want it, for you, your family or your friends. And that’s why we should all be making a huge noise about getting vaccines to health and social care staff as an absolute priority.
Because, quite aside from anything else, without them, we really are in very serious trouble.