Compulsory Covid-19 jabs for NHS and care workers could lead to a staffing crisis, employers say, as it emerged that ministers also hope to enforce flu vaccines.
The Government said on Wednesday that it would pass laws so anyone working in care homes must be double-jabbed, and consult on introducing the same requirement across the NHS.
The measures for care homes – which require legislation to be passed – will also cover agency workers and those who are visiting for duties such as hairdressing.
They were drawn up amid concern that at some homes as many as one in three workers are unvaccinated, allowing the virus to spread.
Now health officials are looking to go further, with a consultation on adding flu vaccination to the list of legal requirements to work in health or care.
But leaders of the sector expressed concern on Wednesday that some staff who objected to vaccines would leave rather than have a jab, exacerbating existing shortages.
Health officials admitted on Wednesday they shared concerns of care leaders that some workers might "vote with their feet", leading to staff shortages.
The GMB union for care workers claimed as many as one in three staff might leave over the matter.
According to official figures, 77,000 care home staff – 16 per cent of the workforce – have yet to receive their first vaccine dose, with take-up dipping even lower in some areas.
Care sector already facing acute staff shortages
There are now fears that those who have so far refused to take up the offer could resign rather than abide by new legal obligation, which would give them 16 weeks to be vaccinated or forced to be redeployed in roles that do not involve interaction with residents.
The care sector is currently facing acute staff shortages, with as many as 100,000 unfilled vacancies.
A number of care bodies held talks with government officials on Wednesday to raise their concerns.
Plans for the NHS are at an earlier stage, with officials saying it has yet to be decided whether rules would cover all staff, or apply only to frontline workers, of whom seven per cent remain unvaccinated.
Dr Susan Hopkins, strategic response director for Covid-19 at Public Health England, acknowledged on Wednesday that there were "pros and cons to any debate on mandatory vaccination", with one possible downside being that "people may vote with their feet, and not want to have the vaccine, and therefore not work in a care home, and that could lead to staff supply issues in care homes".
She told MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee: "I will remain a little bit concerned that we will have shortages of care staff once the mandate has come in, but I’m sure that the vast majority of care workers do want to do the right thing and get vaccinated to protect the elderly under their care."
Mike Padgham, chairman of the Independent Care Group (ICG), which represents care homes in Yorkshire, said he fears people will be put off entering the social care sector.
He said he is in favour of "persuasion rather than coercion or compulsion", adding: "The recruitment crisis already in social care is that we’re frightened that this is going to put more people off coming into social care and that’s going to be difficult.
"I’m also worried about any legal action against providers, because if you’ve only got 16 weeks and you lose your job, where does that put people? We’re already short of staff," he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The right thing to do, says Hancock
Health Secretary, Matt Hancock said "Vaccines save lives and while staff and residents in care homes have been prioritised and the majority are now vaccinated we need to do everything we can to keep reducing the risk.
"We have a responsibility to do all we can to safeguard those receiving care including in the NHS and so will be consulting further on whether to extend to other health and social care workers.
"This is the right thing to do and a vitally important step to continue protecting care homes now and in the future.”
Number 10 also confirmed that the changes will be enacted through secondary legislation, meaning MPs will not be able to scrutinise or vote on the proposals before they come into force.
Steve Baker, a member of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown sceptic Tory MPs, told The Telegraph: "This announcement will appall people who are cautious about vaccines and those who aren’t but who love liberty. The Government faces an uphill struggle to demonstrate proportionality.
"They should consider routine testing instead. It would be crackers to drive people out of the care sector at this time."
The law will cover anyone visiting a care home, including hairdressers, beauticians and tradespeople, with exceptions for visiting family and friends, under 18s, emergency services and people undertaking urgent maintenance work.
The GMB union claimed on Wednesday that more than a third of care workers would consider leaving their jobs if vaccinations become compulsory.
Areas with the lowest take up for staff include Hackney, east London, while just 66.7 per cent of staff in older adult care homes in the borough have had their first dose.
Some care home staff have already signalled their intention to leave their jobs if they are required to have the vaccination, an industry operator has said.
Geoff Butcher, who runs six homes in the Midlands, said one member of staff had walked out of a job interview because of reports it is to be made mandatory.
The UK’s human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has concluded it is "reasonable" to legally require care home staff to be vaccinated.
But some lawyers said the move could expose employers to unfair dismissal and discrimination claims.
The British Medical Association (BMA) last night expressed concern about extending measures across the NHS.
BMA chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: "Compulsion is a blunt instrument to tackle a complex issue. Recent research has highlighted that pressurising health and social care workers can have damaging effects, leading to an erosion of trust, worsening concerns about the vaccine and hardened stances on declining vaccination."