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Editorial Compulsory vaccination for health workers will do more harm than good

HEALTH Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to make Covid vaccination mandatory for NHS staff risks doing more harm than good.

It is typical of a government that has failed to treat health and care workers with respect throughout the pandemic, and of a political system that increasingly looks to authoritarian solutions to compensate for a lack of public trust.

This can be true even though socialists should absolutely support the vaccination drive, salute the tremendous achievement of NHS staff in delivering it and oppose the anti-science arguments against vaccination being promoted in some quarters. 

Despite a rise in Covid cases this autumn to figures similar to those at the height of the first and second waves, we have not seen anything like the number of deaths. 

This is a powerful demonstration of the fact that the vaccines work. The Office for National Statistics has calculated that, adjusted for age, the risk of death involving Covid-19 is 32 times higher in unvaccinated than in fully vaccinated individuals.

But forcing vaccination on workers is unlikely to help reduce Covid deaths, will do nothing to address the reasons for vaccine hesitancy and sets a dangerous precedent in giving employers the right to make decisions of an intimate nature on behalf of their employees.

Vaccine hesitancy is not a mass problem in Britain. The vast majority of eligible people have been fully vaccinated. Among NHS staff 88 per cent had been double-jabbed by September. Many of the remainder will have been infected with Covid-19, which also provides some immunity. The benefits of compulsory vaccination are therefore likely to be marginal.

Vaccine take-up is lower among certain ethnic minority groups. This can often be explained by the impact of racial oppression on people’s lives, whether through poverty and insecurity (people without fixed addresses or who frequently change address have lower vaccination rates likely linked to inaccurate NHS records on their whereabouts) or through the lower confidence the victims of racism have in British state institutions. 

There is a history of unethical medical research using black people as guinea pigs that understandably reduces trust in healthcare institutions. This trust needs to be built through engagement and serious work to root out institutional racism wherever it occurs; forced medical intervention will have the opposite effect.

Indeed, ministers should show some appreciation of their own role in reducing confidence in public bodies. Conflicts of interest have abounded in this government, from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Moderna shares to former health secretary Matt Hancock’s contracts for family and friends.

If top Tories were not so prominent in profiting from the crisis it would make conspiracy theories about treatments a harder sell (which is not to suggest that all people who are reluctant to get vaccinated fall into the “anti-vaxxer” stereotype).

Unions also point to the likely impact on staffing. Mandating vaccination among care home staff is already exacerbating shortages as workers — already overworked and underpaid — leave. 

The NHS is badly understaffed as it is and cannot handle more staff departures this winter. The government could have reduced the likelihood of such a reaction by showing that it valued health workers — by granting them the proper pay rises of 12.5-15 per cent called for by health unions — but it has refused to do so. The decree on jabs will come across as adding insult to injury.

And we should be acutely conscious that this decree comes in a context of a government which is restricting civil liberties, granting new powers to state agents to disregard the law, to police to shut down protest, and which together with the opposition is mulling further state intervention to limit free speech and critical journalism. 

Giving any employer the right to order workers to get a vaccination is a highly authoritarian step by an increasingly authoritarian state. It should be opposed by the left.

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