The professional body has called the strategy of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of deployment for NHS healthcare workers ‘very worrying’

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The NHS is going ahead with plans to redeploy or dismiss healthcare workers in England who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which could lead to some staff being shown the door without redundancy pay.

The British Medical Association (BMA) described it as a ‘very worrying’ move and said the overall strategy risked making staff shortages worse.

The regulations mean that frontline staff, whether in the NHS or independent health sector, must have had at least two COVID-19 vaccine doses no later than 01 April, or face the possibility of their contracts being terminated.

The deadline means they must have had a first dose by 03 February to be eligible for a second dose by the deadline.

letter to health service employers from NHS England and NHS Improvement, sent last Friday, has confirmed the implementation of the rules that could lead to some staff having their contracts terminated by the end of March.

Staff warning in formal meetings

An accompanying 24-page document, Vaccination as a condition of deployment (VCOD) for healthcare workers, sets out how employees should be encouraged to get vaccinated, and the steps for managing cases of individuals who do not comply.

From 04 February, staff who have not had a first vaccine dose—unless exempt—will be invited to a formal meeting with a manager and told the potential consequence may be dismissal ‘on the grounds of contravention of a statutory restriction’. Exemptions from the VCOD regulations include those who:

  • are under the age of 18
  • are medically exempt, such as those with severe allergies to vaccines and certain medical conditions
  • have participated in a clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine
  • are pregnant and have a temporary exemption, which will be valid until 16 weeks’ post-birth.

Having acquired natural immunity through previous SARS-CoV-2 infection is not listed as an exemption in the regulations.

Redeployment and dismissal

Managers should consider temporary or permanent redeployment of an unvaccinated member of staff whenever possible, according to the guidance. However, individuals would not be eligible for pay protection of their basic salary or additional earnings if their new role is in a lower band or grade to their previous position.

Alternative options, including ‘possible adjustments to their current role’ and ‘restrictions to duties’, should be explored.

During formal meetings, an individual can be accompanied by a trade union representative or a staff representative.

The document says: ‘Employers should consider an individual’s reasons for declining to be vaccinated and examine options short of dismissal, where appropriate. However, if it’s not feasible to implement alternative solutions, staff will be taken through a formal process to dismissal.’

The guidance adds: ‘Employers will not be concerned with finding “suitable alternative employment” and there will be no redundancy entitlements, including payments, whether statutory or contractual, triggered by this process.’

Where employees are serving a notice period that extends beyond 01 April, they would be redeployed or removed from patient-facing roles until the termination of employment, or placed on leave if redeployment is not possible, until their dismissal takes effect.

An impact assessment of the VCOD policy by the DHSC, published in November 2021, projected an estimate of 73,000 NHS staff (4.9%) could remain unvaccinated, and not exempt, by 03 February 2022.

However, it was not possible to predict how many staff could not be redeployed, it said.

‘Very worrying’: BMA

The BMA called for an updated impact assessment to assess ‘how this policy will affect staffing numbers, and not rule out a delay if this concludes that services will be left untenable, and patients put further at risk’.

A spokesperson described it as ‘very worrying’ that ‘NHS employers are under no obligation to explore redeployment for unvaccinated staff, protect the pay of those who are redeployed, or give severance pay to staff who are dismissed as a result of being unvaccinated’.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has also called on the Government to delay the implementation of the regulations, which it warned would exacerbate staffing shortages.

Pat Cullen, RCN General Secretary, said: ‘To dismiss valued nursing staff during this crisis would be an act of self-sabotage.’

This article was originally published on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network. 

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