The government is seriously considering making COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for health and social care staff. It is currently consulting on making vaccinations a condition for staff working in care homes with older residents, which would likely including visiting GPs.
As GPonline reported recently, the RCGP has rejected the idea that vaccination be required for GPs and practice staff, but is it only a matter of time until it becomes acceptable?
Probably – although it may require reform beyond the existing proposals. GPs have long been used to certain mandatory vaccinations as a condition of working in a GP practice. That said, any change in law can be burdensome on providers, and can give rise to risk, cost and uncertainty.
There is currently no statutory requirement to have a COVID-19 vaccination. This means that without any other mechanism in place, GPs cannot be forced to, or force their employees to, be vaccinated.
People are free to refuse and some GPs or staff may be unwilling. GPs may have to make difficult decisions on risk management, and careful attention will need to be paid to employment contracts.
What happens if vaccination becomes mandatory?
If (or when) the vaccine becomes mandatory, GPs will need to ensure that they understand what is required of them, and that all relevant staff are appropriately vaccinated (subject to any exemptions) and they keep good records of compliance.
If staff refuse to be vaccinated, employers will need to consider alternatives such as redeployment, suspension or termination of employment, although employment law rights will not fall away.
Workforce losses are probably inevitable. Staff may choose not to be vaccinated and if there are no opportunities to re-deploy them, employers may find they need to terminate employment and re-recruit.
While vaccine take up does appear to be good, it is neither universal nor 100% effective, and losing any talent in an already understaffed and 'burned-out' sector is not a prospect anyone will relish.
Wider practical issues could also arise such as problems with access to vaccinations. It is not outside the realms of possibility that a situation could arise where a provider wants to employ an individual who hasn’t yet been vaccinated, and wants to be vaccinated but is unable to access one, further hindering recruitment efforts.
From a longer-term perspective, uncertainty around any new obligations could put GP practices at risk of being in breach of the law or regulations in future, particularly if they do not keep on top of (likely) developments. Exemptions, for example, are likely to be subject to change as more data and evidence becomes available, and those who have relied on an exemption may need to be kept under continual review.
The current consultation majors on care homes but GPs will need to be proactive. They will not want to be responsible for causing unnecessary delays in care and treatment because of vaccine status, even if the requirement to ensure compliance may on the face of it falls on a care home, or another provider (which is the case under the current proposals).
Advice for practices
Assuming some form of mandatory vaccinations will be introduced, GPs will need to consider how they can ensure (and prove) that they and their staff have received vaccinations where they need them. If not already, GPs may want to ensure that they have thorough records of vaccination status for all staff (including recording any objections or potential exemptions from eligibility), and ensure this is monitored on a regular basis.
For GP practices, it is a case of if and on what terms mandatory vaccination is introduced. Things do seem to be moving quite quickly and further government consultations are likely.
In the meantime, existing regulatory and legal obligations will not fall away and GPs are reminded to ensure they keep on top of compliance. GPs should already be thinking about staff vaccinations and how they fit in with other pre-existing obligations.
A failure, for example, to properly assess and manage risk or staff safely because of vaccination status, could already form the basis for enforcement action from the CQC. We are seeing an increase in the volume of CQC enforcement action and issues on which vaccination status will be highly relevant are very much on the 'watch' list.
- For advice or assistance on the issue of staff vaccinations or on regulatory compliance more generally, you can contact Ridouts at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 0207 317 0340.
Ridouts Professional Services PLC
Ridouts is a law firm that only acts for care providers. We provide legal, operational and strategic advice when providers are faced with matters that could negatively impact their businesses, such as poor CQC inspections and enforcement action. www.ridout-law.com
This article is funded by Ridouts for GP Connect