Boris Johnson may have to pause dismissals of unjabbed NHS staff over vaccine mandate or face the sack himself

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Boris Johnson may have to pause dismissals of unjabbed NHS staff over vaccine mandate or face the sack himself

For millions of Britons facing a cost of living crisis this spring, April really will be the cruellest month. With a National Insurance tax rise and energy bills set to soar, ministers are highly jittery that they are in for a serious backlash, no matter who is Prime Minister by then.

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But for a significant number of NHS staff, April is also when they will be summarily dismissed from their jobs – for failing to comply with a new mandate to get double vaccinated for Covid.

In what is on course to be the biggest single day of sackings in the health service’s history, an estimated 73,000 patient-facing staff are set to be fired.

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Fresh statistics published on Thursday showed 80,092 of all NHS staff in England were yet to have their first dose. Barts Health Hospital Trust in London this week predicted it alone will lose 1,600 staff. Only on Friday, the Health Service Journal reported 1,700 midwives are unvaccinated nationally, eight per cent of the total workforce.

New internal guidance issued to hospital managers last week made plain that the unjabbed would not be given pay-offs or redundancy and would simply be dismissed. “It was brutal”, one NHS insider told me.

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Although the idea of giving staff roles away from interacting with patients was floated, the guidance reveals the cold reality. “It is acknowledged that for many providers, redeployment of staff for the purposes of VCOD [Vaccine as a Condition of Deployment] may not be feasible or practical,” it said.

Although some of those forced out will be GP receptionists, porters and cleaners, I understand the loss of clinical staff is expected to be higher than 50,000.

For context, 50,000 also happens to be the same figure for the number of extra nurses Boris Johnson promised in the 2019 general election for the current Parliament. So the staff increase he promised over five years could be dwarfed by staff losses in just one day on 1 April.

For months, both Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid have been determined to take a hardline stance on unvaccinated health workers, arguing that the main aim of the mandatory jabs policy is to make hospitals safer for patients and for other staff.

But since the Commons passed the necessary legal regulations earlier this month, there have been growing calls for the plan to be paused if not scrapped altogether, not least amid new evidence that two jabs are not as effective against the Omicron variant anyway.

And now, with just days to go until the 3 February deadline for all staff to get their first vaccine dose, I understand that the Department of Health and Social Care is actively considering suspending the policy.

The first glimmer of a change of heart came this week from the PM himself, but few noticed. There’s an old joke among veteran MPs that if you want to keep a secret, say it on the floor of the House of Commons. That’s because after most big setpieces like PMQs or the start of ministerial statements, both MPs and reporters leave the chamber.

This Wednesday, in a quiet moment well after all the drama of a Tory defection to Labour and David Davis’s “in the name of God, go” bombshell, Johnson was quizzed by lockdown-sceptic Mark Harper on the vexed issue of NHS staff jabs.

After hailing the way the threat of compulsion had driven up NHS jab rates, the PM uttered seven potentially significant words: “We will reflect on the way ahead.” To underline this was not just flannel to buy off a critic, he later told another compulsory jabs opponent, Danny Kruger (who was once the PM’s political secretary): “I repeat my careful words.”

That hint of a reprieve has given hope to those MPs who share dire concerns of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Royal College of Midwives (RCM) that the compulsory jabs policy will do more harm than good.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, urged ministers to rethink in a Lords debate on Thursday. The Bishop, who is also a former Chief Nursing Officer, called on all staff to get the jab.

But she added: “However, having heard from midwives myself this week, I can see the anxiety that the requirement for mandatory vaccination is causing, as well as the potential risks to the heath service and its patients.”

In hospitals, managers are finding that the attempts at persuasion have not worked and there is now a hardcore of staff who aren’t responding to the threat of the sack.

“To dismiss valued nursing staff during this crisis would be an act of self-sabotage,” RCN chief Pat Cullen said this week. The RCM’s chief executive Gill Walton said it would “open a Pandora’s box of unforeseen consequences”.

With the NHS still coping with the double demand of delivering the booster programme and hospitalisations from the Omicron wave, the fear among Conservative backbenchers is that their local hospitals and GP surgeries will face catastrophic staff shortages virtually overnight in April.

Indeed, the biggest worry among hospital managers is that the sudden lack of staff will affect patient safety.

After multiple trusts having to recently declare “critical incidents” over Omicron pressures, the worry is they will now have to declare to the CQC regulator emergency notices of “events that stop a service running safely and properly”.

The new vaccination policy warns that such events will include “an insufficient number of suitably qualified, skilled and experienced persons”.

“We can’t magic replacements for these patient-facing staff out of thin air,” says another insider. A pause, possibly until the summer to give time for new recruits to come on board, is being urged on NHS England by multiple trusts which are warning of severe shortfalls.

The race against time is real, with ministers having just under a fortnight to change the regulations before dismissal notices have to be sent out across the country.

They can claim that the threat of the sack has worked in getting up numbers, but overall staffing of the NHS is the immediate priority. The need to tackle non-Covid waiting lists after Omicron is also a key factor, and staffing at the heart of it.

Along with the lifting of “Plan B” restrictions, pausing the mandate would also fit with the wider message from Government that its focus is on getting life back to normal, without extra disruption for the health service or for the public at large.

The politics of the PM’s current leadership woes may prove crucial. With so many MPs already upset by both partygate and tax rises, he can’t afford another band of dissidents who worry the NHS could be tipped into fresh crisis in April.

If Johnson fails to heed calls for a pause, he could lose his job before all those health service staff lose theirs.

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