Vaccine rollout under threat as COVID-19 infections hit waste collection staff

A mounting toll of COVID-19 infection among staff involved in waste collection from NHS vaccination sites threatens to slow down the vaccine rollout, a waste collection management company has warned.

Clinical waste (Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Clinical waste (Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

A company that manages the collection of clinical waste from hundreds of vaccination sites - as well as from thousands of GP practices and pharmacies in London and south-east England - has warned that rising levels of illness among staff have left their service close to a 'tipping point'.

Record numbers of drivers have called in sick in recent weeks, and in the last week alone, the company said it had been forced to 'make alternative arrangements for 15% of all collections'.

Waste management company Anenta has called for waste collection staff to be invited en masse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a matter of urgency - warning that failure to protect these staff could leave used PPE and syringes from vaccination sites uncollected, and potentially spiral to affect waste collection from hospitals, GP practices and other sites.

Clinical waste warning

The company has also warned staff are being put at risk by vaccination sites failing to dispose of clinical waste appropriately - with sharps not placed in the proper containers, or bags of waste inadequately sealed.

Advice from NHS England suggests that staff 'working for a sub-contracted provider of facilities services such as portering or cleaning' should be offered vaccination against COVID-19 as part of the rollout to health and social care staff.

However, a spokesperson for Anenta told GPonline that in practice there is 'no standard approach, which means that clinical waste and hazardous waste collection drivers are not being identified for vaccination'.

The company's managing director Graham Flynn warned: 'We are close to a tipping point where illness among those trained to collect healthcare and clinical waste could reach such high proportions that the collection of PPE and syringes from vaccination centres could falter, and services to the wider NHS could be seriously affected.

COVID-19 vaccination

'If drivers are not vaccinated and continue to contract COVID-19, the collection of clinical waste could slow significantly, putting pressure on the system as long-term storage sites at vaccination centres become strained.

'If this occurs, that could slow the government’s vaccination schedule. It could also lead to wider issues in terms of the delayed collection of healthcare waste from hospitals and other healthcare settings.'

The company warned that proper segregation of clinical waste was 'just not happening' at some sites delivering COVID-19 vaccination. Mr Flynn said: 'We have heard of numerous cases where sharps, including vaccination jabs, have been thrown loose into waste bins, or disposed of in the general clinical waste orange bags alongside PPE, as opposed to being placed in designated, hard-shell, yellow plastic sealable sharps containers.'

He said that the company feared volunteers at vaccination sites had not been adequately trained in how to dispose of these items, potentially putting staff collecting waste at risk.

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