Covid-19: Requirements for Employees to be Vaccinated

Jim Shannon Excerpts
Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I am very pleased to be here, Mr Paisley. I think this is my second consecutive Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship—you will soon be here as much as I am, at this rate.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I jest. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on setting the scene so comprehensively. In the light of the contributions from hon. Members, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a clear case to make on behalf of workers, and I will speak about that as well.

On 7 December 2020, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan—a grandmother originally from County Fermanagh—rolled up her sleeve at University Hospital Coventry and took her place in history. Each of us remembers that day exceptionally well. I know that we do, Mr Paisley, because she was from Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, but I believe that she was an inspiration to every one of us who took our jabs and boosters.

Mrs Keenan became the first person in the world to be vaccinated against covid-19. Since then, almost 10 billion doses of the three main vaccines have been administered around the world. We thank our Government, and the Minister, for that incredible initiative. I have absolutely no doubt that many people are alive today because of the vaccine roll-out. It is just unfortunate that others did not get that chance. There is no doubt that all those who quickly followed in Mrs Keenan’s path helped to create the turning point in the first pandemic in living memory. In countries that quickly rolled out the vaccine programme, it has had a major impact on cutting hospitalisation and death rates.

I do not think anyone can ignore the fact that more than 200,000 people have signed the petition. Although that shows how many people felt moved to sign it, my interpretation of petitions is that they reflect only a small proportion of overall support, because many people who would have agreed with a petition’s intent and wording did not get to sign it.

I heard in the news today that Israel is considering a fourth dose of covid vaccine for the over-60s. The evidential base indicates that a fourth dose seems to make the over-60s resistant to many other diseases as well. Maybe that is something that our Government should be looking at to ensure that our people are safe in the long term.

To date, 9.87 billion doses of the vaccine have been delivered worldwide, and 4.09 billion people—52.5% of the world’s population—are fully vaccinated. We should recognise that as a remarkable undertaking and an achievement of human effort and medical science since that very first dose just over a year ago in December 2020. It has been achieved purely through voluntary effort and by successfully persuading people that getting vaccinated was the right thing to do not only for themselves, but for the people around them. I use the word “persuading” because that is what the Government should be doing rather than coercing or strong-arming people into doing things that they feel strongly about.

We must recognise, however, that vaccination has not eradicated covid-19. We have not vaccinated our way out of the pandemic, however much that might have been intended. New variants have emerged, and people are talking about the B.1s and C.1s, so people have become re-infected and have continued to transmit the virus—that was mentioned on the radio today. I am a supporter of the vaccine programme. I am triple-vaccinated because I chose to be vaccinated, as has just over half the world’s population, but I strongly believe that being vaccinated against this virus should remain a personal choice.

How life changes. I bet that a year ago every one of us in this room was out clapping for our NHS staff on Thursday nights—I know that my family and I were, because we recognised what those in the NHS were doing. Yet a year later we have a different policy, as if none of that mattered any more. It mattered a year ago, and we were prepared to say so; it should matter now, too. I am not sure whether the Minister is deputising for someone else, or maybe I have got that wrong, but in any case, I am concerned that Government policy seems to be to coerce and strong-arm people into getting a vaccine. I have to stand by those who come to see me about this matter.

Mr Paisley, you and I have discussed the nurses, NHS care staff and other staff who routinely work on wards making things happen. They have chosen their vocation and made a commitment. Many of them have shed tears about the Government following through with a policy that will take their jobs away from them. In her invention, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) rightly mentioned the figures. Where will we be with cancer and cataract operations, or treatment for heart disease and strokes? We all know the conditions for which there are now long waiting lists, and those lists will just get longer if we pay off 80,000 staff, 115,000 staff, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said in his opening speech, or 175,000 staff, as others have said.

It is a foundation principle of medical ethics that consent must be given for any medical procedure. Making vaccination against covid-19 a requirement for employment is opening the door to imposing penalties on those who, for their own reasons, do not comply with the law. As I have said, I have been contacted by many constituents who work in healthcare and have expressed very real concerns that mandatory vaccination for covid-19 will lead to a two-tier workplace—yes, it will—that will see vaccinated employees rewarded by financial incentives over those who choose not to be vaccinated. That is happening across the world.

Every one of those staff has dedicated themselves to their excellent work. We all know that our healthcare workers are driven by their duty of care and commitment to their chosen field while being in the most underpaid, under-resourced and overworked profession. If we lose that number of staff from the healthcare sector in February because they have made a personal choice, waiting lists will get longer and diagnostic investigations will not take place in the timescale that we hope to see.

I commend the healthcare workers who choose to come forward to be vaccinated. We need to make the distinction between vaccine refusal and vaccine hesitancy. Hesitancy is based on trust, and is something we can work on. Rather than directing health system resources and political muscle towards imposing penalties for non-compliance, we would do better to invest further in education and more efforts to facilitate meaningful conversations between concerned people and healthcare professionals.

We cannot and should not become a society or Government that penalises or sanctions people for making a personal health choice. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made an excellent point about libertarianism. It is a policy of his party that I share—by the way, I do not share all Liberal Democrat policies; just this one. This is about liberty, freedom and choice, and about people following the vocation they love without being penalised for that choice.

When we make legislation for the workplace, as for anywhere else, we must always balance public objectives against individual rights to freedom of choice and freedom from discrimination. We must recognise that trust is a major factor for people from some ethnic and religious groups, some of whom will have a problem with vaccination from a religious point of view. Should they be penalised because they work in the NHS? The Government would do better to build confidence in the vaccine programme and see vaccination rates increase, instead of creating a legal requirement for the workplace.

Let us use this Westminster Hall debate to build trust in the vaccine programme and respect choice, because choice is not only part of the informed consent process, which we should all adhere to, but a valued and inherent sign of respect for the person. To pursue compulsory vaccination flies in the face of all that is key and core for our NHS workers, including doctors, nurses, care staff and others. I believe that we must stand by them.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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Before I call the SNP spokesperson, I thank all Back Benchers for self-regulating their time during the debate, which has landed perfectly for everyone. Thank you for doing that without me having to set a time limit.

--- Later in debate ---
Paul Scully Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the Petitions Committee on securing the debate, and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on the way that he presented it on the Committee’s behalf. Clearly, this is an issue that can divide opinion, with people on both sides holding very strong views. I am grateful to everyone who contributed. As many Members will know, I sat on the Petitions Committee for a number of years. Now, as a Minister, I am sitting on the other side of the fence, accounting for the Government’s position, so I understand how invaluable the work of the Committee is.

As we all know, today’s debate was prompted by an online petition to prohibit employers from requiring staff to be vaccinated against covid-19. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked why I was present, and whether I was substituting. Although the petition referenced the public sector and the NHS, I am afraid that it is because of the wide-ranging wording of the petition that he has got me. However, I will clearly touch on many of the issues that have been raised, because the debate has been focused on the NHS, and understandably so. The petition has been signed by more than 190,000 people, which goes to show the strength of the issue.

There is concern among those who have signed the e-petition, and all MPs who have spoken, about the steps that the Government have taken to make vaccination a condition of deployment in certain settings. There is also concern more generally that some employers outside those sectors are seeking to mandate the covid-19 vaccines for their workforce. I will come to that, but the Government’s starting point, as I think all Members have said today, is that vaccines are our best defence against covid-19.

The overwhelming majority of us have taken the positive step of accepting the offer of vaccination. Some 79% of eligible adults in England have now had a booster, including over 91% of over-50s, who are more vulnerable to the virus. We are the most boosted large country in the world. Recent data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that around three months after those aged 65 and over receive their booster, their protection against hospitalisation remains around 90%. The vaccines work.

However, those vaccines do not just protect us and our loved ones against covid-19. It is because of the vaccines that we have one of the most open economies in the world, so if we are to maintain the collective protection that we have built up, we need everybody to choose responsibly and get vaccinated. That will ensure greater freedom for us all.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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In my contribution, I referred to the fact that a year ago, we were clapping NHS workers across the whole of the United Kingdom. Everybody, including the Prime Minister and everyone in this room, did that. Does the Minister not understand—I say this very respectfully—the deep feeling of hurt that those people have? We clapped them, and now we are telling them that we no longer need them unless they do what they are told.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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I will come to the issue of NHS workers in a second, and show what we are doing regarding non-patient-facing NHS workers and the moves we are taking to help people get vaccinated.