Mandatory vaccinations for frontline health staff under consultation
The AOP has highlighted that the consultation on proposals to require frontline health workers in England to have COVID-19 and flu vaccines “must include optometry”
The Government has launched a consultation on proposals for mandating COVID-19 and flu vaccinations for frontline health and social care workers in England. The AOP confirmed it would be looking further into the details of the proposal and emphasised that optometry must be part of the discourse.
The consultation considers whether health and wider social care workers in contact with patients should be required to have COVID-19 and flu vaccinations, meaning only those fully vaccinated – unless medically exempt – could be deployed to deliver health and care services.
Launched on 9 September, the consultation runs for six weeks and will seek views on the proposal, its scope and potential impact on staffing and safety. Staff, healthcare providers, stakeholders and patients are encouraged to participate in the consultation. A final decision is expected this winter.
Responding to the announcement, chief executive of the AOP, Adam Sampson, highlighted the “vital role” optometrists have played in providing face-to-face patient care, adding: “As such, any proposal that considers whether frontline staff in health and wider care settings in England should be required to have COVID-19 and flu vaccines must include optometry.”
Considering the suggested vaccination policies, he explained: “Under the current proposal, we understand that hospital optometrists will be required to have the COVID-19 vaccination, if they haven’t already, and we will be looking at the detail of the proposal to understand how this will be extended to optometry in the community.”
Optical staff were included as a priority group in the early phases of the vaccination roll-out as a part of primary healthcare, Sampson noted, “So it is likely that if the proposal is supported, there will be a case to support the roll-out to those providing face-to-face eye care in the community as well.”
The consultation follows a recent decision that will require professionals entering care homes to have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by 11 November, unless exempt. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) Social Care Working Group advised that there is a “strong scientific case” for similar approaches to vaccination in NHS inpatient settings as there will be in care homes due to overlapping networks of patients and workers.
The Government suggested the proposals could help to protect vulnerable patients and staff, arguing that this is particularly important “where extensive unexpected staff absences can put added pressure on already hardworking clinicians providing patient care during busy periods like winter.”
The Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that this winter will be the first in the UK when SARS-CoV-2 is expected to circulate alongside other respiratory viruses, such as flu, suggesting this could “significantly contribute to the NHS’s winter pressures.”
Reports suggest 92% of NHS trust staff have had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 88% have had both doses.
However, the Government has suggested there is variation in uptake between NHS trusts, with data showing that uptake rates can vary from approximately 78% to 94% for both doses.
Meanwhile, flu vaccination rates in the health service increased to 76% in 2020 from 14% in 2002, though the Government highlighted that rates can drop to 53% in some settings.
Discussing the launch of the consultation, Sampson shared: “We know the majority of our members asked for the same protections as frontline healthcare staff, including access to personal protective equipment, altered working conditions, and early access to the vaccine, and a large majority of the UK adult population have already chosen to be vaccinated.”
He continued: “While encouraging uptake of the vaccination is the best way of protecting people, particularly the vulnerable, from COVID-19, we also accept that there are disparate views, and the implementation of any decision that makes vaccination a condition of deployment will need to be handled with sensitivity.”
The AOP will be submitting a response to the consultation, informed by member feedback.
Commenting on the proposals, health and social care secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “It’s so clear to see the impact vaccines have against respiratory viruses which can be fatal to the vulnerable, and that’s why we’re exploring mandatory vaccines for both COVID-19 and flu.”
Also responding to the announcement, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “As it stands, the vast majority of NHS staff have already chosen to be vaccinated, and the important thing is to make sure those who have yet to be vaccinated are supported to do so.”
He suggested that emphasising “education and communication with staff” would be crucial – even if the mandate is put into place, adding “the focus must remain on increasing vaccine confidence, and the approach taken to date to encourage uptake through informed consent remains the preferred option.”
More information on the consultation can be found on the Government website.