Care home workers in England could be legally required to be vaccinated against Covid-19 under plans being considered by the Government, according to the Health Secretary.
Matt Hancock said that “no final decision” has been taken amid a review into vaccination passports, which is considering a range of issues.
The National Care Forum, Independent Care Group, Four Seasons Health Care, Unison and the GMB union all expressed concern over compulsory vaccination.
The Telegraph reported leaked details of a paper submitted to the “Covid O” sub-committee of Cabinet which said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr Hancock had agreed to the proposal.
Mr Hancock told LBC that “many” care homes had asked for this to happen, adding: “There’s a legal change that’s required and, as you can see, I’m open to that, but no final decision has been taken.”
The plans have emerged amid concerns of low uptake of staff in care homes looking after those who are among the most vulnerable to the virus.
But it would prove controversial, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman previously accepting it would be “discriminatory” to force people to be vaccinated.
Mr Hancock said that there was “still further to go” in vaccine uptake in care staff, with around 76% of workers in elderly care homes vaccinated, and more than 90% of residents.
The Independent Care Group, which represents providers in York and North Yorkshire, said making the vaccine mandatory for care workers could put people off from joining the sector.
Chairman Mike Padgham said it is vital care workers get vaccinated but it should be voluntary, adding: “I think rather than force it through legislation, the Government has more work to do in terms of persuading everyone, not just care workers, about how important it is that the whole country has the vaccine so that we are all protected.
“There are already 120,000 vacancies in the care sector, we don’t need to put anything else in the way that might prevent people from joining our rewarding profession.”
The GMB union said care workers should not be “strong-armed or bullied with threats of the law”.
Kelly Andrews, lead social care officer, said: “The least they could do through the vaccine rollout is try to gain the confidence of the workforce and work with us to remove the barriers to getting vaccinated.
“A voluntary line of action which ensures care workers get full sick pay for potential vaccination side-effects, support services to talk through workers’ concerns.
“This heavy-handed, we-know-best approach will cause unnecessary anxiety and discontent when our care workers are still fighting the pandemic.”
Unison warned against “turning the clock back to Victorian times” with mandatory vaccination, instead calling for a targeted advertising campaign for care staff.
General secretary Christina McAnea said employers could make it easier for staff to get a vaccine and allow appointments in working hours.
A spokesman for Four Seasons Health Care, one of the UK’s largest care home groups, said its “strong belief” is that vaccination should remain optional.
He continued: “The Government has demonstrated that care homes are a safe place to be through the reintroduction of face-to-face visitation, and our death rate, which has remained below the seasonal average for nine months also supports this view.
“We will continue to follow all guidance but do not believe compulsory vaccinations are necessary for the protection of residents, which is always our first priority, and to introduce them runs the risk of creating more problems than it solves.”
The National Care Forum said it does not believe mandatory vaccination is the way forward, and Care England said this should be for individual providers to decide, while Government’s role should be to make access as easy as possible.
Barchester Healthcare, another large care home group, said 90% of its staff have had at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose.
The group has introduced a new policy where it expects all staff to have had the vaccine by April 23, bar a number of “acceptable exemptions”, although it said this could be delayed if data regarding safety, efficacy or effect on transmission requires further review.
A spokeswoman added: “Our long-term ambition is that all patient and resident-facing staff will have the Covid-19 vaccine in order to protect both themselves and the vulnerable residents and patients in our care.
“We are very aware of concerns around possible discrimination which is in no way our intention. We are doing everything possible to ensure fairness whilst also delivering on our duty to protect our residents, patients and staff.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he sees “powerful arguments” both for and against the compulsory vaccination of care home staff and that the most important thing currently is to encourage people to come forward for jabs.