Ministers are to go ahead with plans to oblige care home staff to have coronavirus vaccinations as a condition of work and will consult on extending this to NHS workers, Matt Hancock has confirmed.
Speaking in the Commons before a vote later on Wednesday on delaying the easing of Covid restrictions by four weeks, the health secretary also said such compulsion could in future be extended to seasonal flu vaccines.
Addressing scepticism among some Conservative MPs about putting back the reopening from 21 June to 19 July, Hancock said there would not be a case to delay any further simply to protect members of the public who had not taken up vaccinations.
There was “a material difference” in the state’s obligations towards those who had not yet been offered a vaccine and towards people who had opted not to have one, he said.
“The duty that we have when someone has not been offered the vaccine is greater than the duty we have when somebody has been offered the vaccine but has chosen not to take it up,” he told MPs.
During his speech, Hancock confirmed the move towards mandatory vaccinations for care staff and possibly for the NHS, setting up a likely battle with some workers and potentially a legal fight.
“After careful consultation we have decided to take this proposal forward to protect residents,” Hancock said of the care worker plan. “Now, the vast majority of staff in care homes are already vaccinated, but not all, and we know that a vaccine not only protects you but those around you.
“And therefore we will be taking forward the measures to ensure the mandation as a condition of deployment for staff in care homes, and we will consult on the same approach in the NHS in order to save lives and protect patients from the disease.”
Hancock was asked by Steve Baker, the Conservative backbencher who is a leading member of the Covid Recovery Group, which wants restrictions lifted sooner, why care home staff who did not want the vaccination could not instead have daily lateral flow tests.
The health secretary replied: “We do of course already have significant testing, but it’s a matter of risk. And we know that the vaccine reduces that risk, very significantly.”
In response to another question, he confirmed that the policy of mandatory vaccinations could be extended to seasonal flu. Asked if he would consider this, Hancock said: “Yes, we will.”
Arguing for the need for the four-week delay, Hancock said there were currently 1.2 million people aged over 50 who had not yet had both Covid vaccinations, and 4.4 million over 40, and “the majority” of these would get them by 19 July.
He said the change was needed because of the arrival of the more transmissible Delta variant. “A new variant has given the virus extra legs, both because it spreads more easily and because there’s some evidence that the risk of hospitalisation is higher than for the Alpha variant, which was of course previously dominant in this country.
“The Delta variant now accounts for 96% of new cases. The number of cases is rising and hospitalisations are starting to rise too – they are up 48% over the past week.”