Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on his introduction to the debate. As he set out, the petition calls on the Government to make it illegal for any employer to mandate vaccination for its employers, including those in the public sector, the third sector and indeed the private sector.
This is a timely debate, coming at the start of the week when the current coronavirus restrictions will be reduced and many people who have been working from home will be planning to return to the office. Employers will also be contemplating how some of the changes, including the removal of the requirement to wear masks, will affect their employees. It will be a period of uncertainty and anxiety for people who are vulnerable. Although we see the number of daily infections falling from its peak earlier in the month, it is still at a higher level than we have seen throughout most of the pandemic. Sadly, the number of daily deaths also remains extremely high. This reminds us that the pandemic is not over yet, and it is likely that there will continue to be pressure on the NHS, as well as some level of disruption, due to high levels of staff absences across both the NHS and the wider economy.
As we know from the Confederation of British Industry, companies have been struggling with staffing issues for several months, even before the rise in covid cases and the increased levels of absence that that has produced as a result of labour shortages across the economy. As has been reported over the weekend, businesses of all sizes are debating the vaccine question, and whether to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated members of their workforce. As has been mentioned, some well-known high street names, such as Morrisons, Next, IKEA and Ocado, have already changed their company’s sickness policies, and will be treating vaccinated and unvaccinated workers differently. That may well be because the rules surrounding isolation for vaccinated and unvaccinated people are different, but there is no general law requiring employees to be vaccinated, nor any law requiring employers to mandate vaccination of their staff.
Regardless of whether staff are vaccinated, supporting them to self-isolate is entirely the right approach. It is consistent with the prioritisation of public health, as has been the case throughout the pandemic. I therefore agree with the approach that John Lewis has taken, which is to treat all its staff the same, regardless of vaccination status. However, the issues play into wider concerns about the totally unacceptable level of support for many of those who have had to self-isolate. From the shockingly low levels of statutory sick pay to the fact that millions of people do not even qualify for it, this is an area where much more could have been done from an early stage of the pandemic.
On vaccines, let us be clear that, as many Members have said, having the vaccine is the right thing to do—not just for oneself, but for other people. We thank the NHS staff and the many volunteers who have rolled out the vaccine and the booster jabs. It has been clear in recent weeks that the booster uptake has slowed. Areas such as Birmingham, Manchester and Northampton have had relatively low booster uptake in recent weeks. I know that the Minister is not the Health Minister, but if he can set out anything about how the Government intend to improve uptake levels, that would be appreciated.
The real substance of this debate is about the impact on the NHS workforce. Every Member has talked about their concerns in that regard. In particular, there was strong representation from hon. Members from my part of the world, who showed their commitment to and concern for the NHS. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) said, we entered the pandemic with a staffing crisis in the NHS already. She highlighted the contribution that NHS staff have made over the last two years, and brought home very well the anxiety that many of them feel about the position that they are in.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) rightly paid tribute to his local vaccination team, who have done an excellent job. He raised the fact that people have different reasons for declining to have the jab; it may be a lack of trust, a conspiracy theory they have read on the internet, or health concerns. Those are all legitimate concerns in the minds of those individuals, and the best way to deal with them is through engagement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead showed commitment to his principles by resigning from the Front Bench because of this issue, as did my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who has huge experience in the NHS and has a long-standing commitment to the workforce. She laid out in startling detail the impact on services that the removal of so many staff will have, and described how the royal colleges and trade unions are resolute in their position on this. She also raised the important point that there is no long-term plan on vaccinations from the Government. If we are required to have another vaccine or a booster every three to six months, and the mandatory proposal continues, that will leave a lot of NHS staff on a knife edge. We certainly need greater clarity from the Government on what their strategy on vaccinations more generally is going to be.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) spoke about the impact from a local authority perspective. He raised an interesting question about how the Government are going to meet their pledge to have 50,000 more nurses in post. It is important to mention that, because over half of that pledge is generated through greater retention levels. Clearly, as Members have expressed, the ability to retain staff is going to be severely compromised by this proposal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) gave a passionate speech about the issue, saying that we are sleepwalking into a crisis, and rightly describing the debate as polarising. Sadly, many issues today are polarising. She also described how so many health workers were failed by the Government, with their failure to provide PPE in the first place, and was right to point out that the timing of this proposal sets out a confusing and conflicting message about the importance of getting vaccinated.
As Members have said, in recent days more bodies have joined the call for there to be a delay to the compulsory vaccination of NHS staff, with the Royal College of General Practitioners being the latest to add its voice. I accept that the Department of Health and Social Care is not the Minister’s Department, but it has said that its view is that the policy continues. The Prime Minister said last week that it is the right thing to do to protect patients and that there is a professional responsibility to get vaccinated. That seems clear enough, but he also said:
“We will reflect on the way ahead.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 340.]
That led to various reports that a U-turn is in the pipeline. I know the Prime Minister is rather preoccupied with his own job at the moment, but it is no understatement to say that thousands of people’s jobs are dependent on his reflections. Those comments should not be ignored, because they have been seized upon by many who do not wish to be vaccinated as a reason not to go ahead with a vaccination.
Those who are resistant to a compulsory vaccination have noted that the restrictions that were voted on by this House last month have been dropped, with the exception of the compulsory vaccination. They are questioning why this requirement is still in place if the worst is now over. I accept that the Minister here today is not the correct Minister to address this point to, but there needs to be clarity and a definitive statement one way or the other; that statement needs to be made this week. There are 10 days to go until the first deadline for vaccination. We do not want another inquiry, or a kicking of the can down the road. We need a clear common position, agreed with as many of the stakeholders, the royal colleges and the trade unions as possible, so that they can all have certainty.
If the decision is to press ahead, that needs to be accompanied by a credible plan for engagement with staff that also sets out how the inevitable staffing shortfall that we have heard about tonight will be dealt with. If the decision is to halt or pause, that needs to be accompanied by clear assurances that patients and service users will not be at any greater risk from unvaccinated staff. In either scenario, the scientific advice and professional opinions must be released simultaneously, so that there is no room for doubt that the decision has been taken for the right reasons, based on the most up-to-date advice available, and not for short-term political considerations. I accept that the Minister may not be able to answer all those points, but that is a very clear message that we would send to those who will make the decisions. We need clarity and we need it now.
I have spoken to a number of constituents who are currently unvaccinated and are required to receive a vaccination as part of their job. Regretfully, I have been unable to persuade them so far that it is the right thing for them to do. They are often young and may already have had a mild covid infection. They are well versed in the need for PPE when dealing with vulnerable people, but see little benefit for themselves individually, or collectively, in taking the vaccine. They are also well versed in the principles of informed consent, which we have touched on. Most are not covid deniers and do not dispute the importance of vaccines more generally, but they simply do not believe that there will be a reduction in risk for anyone by vaccination, and see this as an issue to take a stand on to the extent that they are prepared to lose their jobs over it.
Frankly, I find those conversations troubling. Those people have had 12-plus months of information fed to them that has been allowed to go unchallenged. To expect stretched employers to turn that around in a week or two in a meeting with the human resources manager, who may not have the same level of knowledge that these people have, will be a tall order, particularly when there is evidence, as we have heard, that persuasion is usually a much more effective tool than coercion. More support should be given to employers to deal with the very tricky situation in which they find themselves.
Many in the care home sector, when provided with information of this nature, chose to be vaccinated. That was certainly a reason for some support on this matter, but, as has been alluded to, the mood music is different now. Restrictions are coming off. The worst of the predictions for omicron did not come to pass, so the task to persuade people is that little bit harder. I urge the Government to put on a united front with employers, the unions and the royal colleges, to persuade people that this is the right thing to do.