All NHS health and social care staff will be offered a Covid vaccine as an “immediate” and “critical” priority amid growing anxiety from frontline workers and concerns over absence rates.
In an announcement today, NHS England said hospitals would play the lead role in vaccinating millions of staff and that most should have been inoculated by early February.
The move comes amid rising fears that parts of the NHS are close to collapse as a result of the steep rise in coronavirus infections and people being admitted to hospital, and that the difficulties are being compounded by record numbers of workers off sick or self-isolating.
It follows the stark warning from the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday that “many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure. We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
The new drive to immunise about 3 million health and social care staff across the UK means they should be offered the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by mid-February at the latest.
Frontline personnel who work most closely with Covid patients, such as those in intensive care units, A&E departments and on wards where confirmed cases are treated, will be vaccinated first.
In a letter to NHS trusts and GP practices across England, three key NHS England officials told them that they are now under an “immediate requirement to vaccinate frontline health and social care workers, ensuring maximum uptake of vaccination and timely, equitable access across staff groups”, adding: “It is now time for us to vaccinate health and care workers, in line with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s prioritisation.”
In an acknowledgment that the move is necessary to help ensure NHS services have the maximum number of staff available, it added: “This is critical to ensure we protect health and care workers, patients and the public at a time when Covid-19 pressures across health and care are intensifying.”
The announcement came as a survey of managers in health and social care found that staff absence due to Covid sickness or isolation was leaving major holes in workforces as the disease’s resurgence put services under unprecedented strain.
Of the 82 managers surveyed, almost a third (32%) said that staff absence had reached at least 12%, of whom a fifth (20%) said it had reached more than 15%. Almost two-thirds said absence was worse or much worse than usual.
Responding to NHS staff being made a top priority for jabs, Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, the president of the Doctors’ Association UK, said: “For frontline staff who are risking their lives every day to keep patients safe, this announcement couldn’t have come soon enough.
“Tragically we have lost too many health workers to Covid in the UK. Frontline NHS and care workers absolutely must be protected as a matter of priority and we are pleased to see this announcement.”