Professor Martin Marshall told BBC Radio 4 that compulsory vaccines for healthcare staff were ‘not the right way forward’ and urged the government to implement a ‘short delay’ to next month's deadline to avoid ‘massive consequences’ for the NHS workforce.
The London GP said that around 70,000 to 80,000 NHS staff remained unvaccinated, with little over a week until the deadline for those in patient facing roles to receive their first COVID-19 jab if they are to continue to work after 1 April.
He warned that the NHS could ill afford to lose more staff members amid ‘already low’ numbers, adding it was essential to retain staff. He said patients could experience ‘even poorer access to services’ without a delay.
COVID-19 jab mandate
His comments come amid reports that the prime minister is considering delaying mandatory jabs for NHS staff by six months to avoid another revolt from within his own party, with some Conservative MPs wanting the measure scrapped.
NHS England primary care medical director Dr Nikki Kanani has insisted that it is up to NHS staff to ‘look after each other’, as well as their patients, by getting a COVID-19 vaccination before next month’s deadline.
GPonline reported last week that thousands of unvaccinated staff at GP practices could be handed their notice from 4 February, with those in patient-facing roles needing to get their first dose by 3 February to ensure they are eligible to work on 1 April, when the vaccination as a condition of deployment (VCOD) mandate takes effect.
Speaking on the Today programme, Professor Marshall said the RCGP remained against the idea of compulsory vaccines for NHS staff, but argued the government should delay the deadline to avoid ‘massive consequences’.
He said: ‘Our view is that mandation of vaccination for health professionals is not the right way forward. We think that informed choice is much better than forcing people to get it because that just risks generating mistrust...We're pretty confident that over time the vast majority of people will become vaccinated. But in the meantime the workforce crisis is massive in the NHS, and we simply can't afford to lose people.
‘There will be massive consequences for the NHS across all sectors [if there is no delay]’. In some some hospitals about 10% of their staff aren't vaccinated; there are similar kinds of figures in general practice as well, so we're going to see an impact on patient services, even poorer access, even more stress staff that are there, and that would be unacceptable for patients and certainly unacceptable for the hardworking clinicians.
'The balance is clearly in favour of needing to retain the inadequate workforce that we currently have. A short delay in mandation, if mandation has to happen at all, just seems to me to be an entirely sensible thing.’
The RCGP is undecided on how long the delay should be, but Professor Marshall said it needed to be long enough to allow healthcare and political leaders to have a ‘sensible discussion’ about whether mandation is the correct approach.
‘We have never supported mandation, and our hope and expectation is that the government steps back completely from it. But since the government has made the decision, delaying introduction…just makes sense,’ he said.
Reports on the jab mandate in the Telegraph have suggested prime minister Boris Johnson is contemplating 'kicking it down the road' to avoid a Tory revolt. But Dr Kanani encouraged NHS staff to get their jabs ahead of the deadline.
She said: ‘Mandatory vaccination is a government policy but as healthcare professionals we all have a duty to make sure that we are protected, to make sure that our colleagues and our patients are protected...Think about the best way to make sure that we're all protected, and that we're all as safe as possible, because we are very much in this together and it's down to us to look after each other too.’
GPonline reported last November that general practice could lose around 9,000 staff under government plans to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory from April - stripping more than one team member from each practice on average.