Covid-19: Requirements for Employees to be Vaccinated

Mick Whitley Excerpts
Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Mick Whitley Portrait Mick Whitley (Birkenhead) (Lab)
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It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing this debate and for making his case with such eloquence. I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I begin by acknowledging the immense debt of gratitude that I and all my constituents owe to Dr Mantgani and his Birkenhead vaccination team. Throughout the pandemic, they have consistently outperformed all other teams in the north-west, and even today, from their base in the Birkenhead medical centre, they continue to work tirelessly to encourage the vaccine hesitant to come forward and have their first jab. The vaccine remains the most powerful weapon that we have in the long fight against covid, and I implore any of my constituents who have not yet had their first jab to get it as soon as possible, without fear of judgment or ridicule.

However, as the Government start speaking of a future beyond covid restrictions, we must confront the uncomfortable fact that many people in the country still refuse to get vaccinated. For those of us who have proudly had our boosters, their reasons may sometimes seem unfathomable. Some have fallen prey to the online conspiracy theories and scare stories that the tech giants have failed miserably to stamp out, some have legitimate health concerns or suffer from deep-seated phobias, and others distrust established authority, with varying levels of justification. All of them deserve to be treated with compassion—and so, as we ask ourselves whether employers should be allowed to make vaccination a condition of employment, my answer is a loud and resounding no.

The recent vote to introduce a vaccination mandate in the NHS highlights some of the issues that we face. To defy the party Whip is never an easy decision, but I voted against that motion, and resigned from the Front Bench in the process, because I could not in good conscience condemn so many of our healthcare heroes to the dole queue. Now, 80,000 healthcare heroes face the grim prospect of unemployment in the midst of a once-in-a-generation cost-of-living crisis.

Experts were quick to make their objections known. The Trades Union Congress warns that without a delay to its implementation, the vaccine mandate could compound an already acute staffing shortage and lead to a “staffing nightmare”. The Department of Health and Social Care’s own equality impact assessment makes it clear that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers, young workers and women are likely to be disproportionately affected. Meanwhile, the Government seem to have run roughshod over the concerns of the trade unions in their haste to drive through the policy.

NHS staff need only look to the care sector to see the consequences of enforcing such a mandate. Following the introduction of a “no jab, no job” policy in care homes last summer, many dedicated workers have been forced out of the profession they loved. Unison is warning of a “catastrophic” staffing crisis in a sector that was already in desperate need of no fewer than 100,000 additional staff.

Of course, service users have every right to feel safe in their hospitals and care homes. Every effort must be made to protect them and to convince those who care for them of the need to get a jab. But we must never forget that it was only two years ago that these very same health and care workers were asked to enter clinical settings that the Government had so utterly failed to make safe. Nor should we ignore the far more fundamental role that shortages of PPE, tests and staff continue to play in jeopardising patient safety. We should never stop holding the Government to account for their monumental failure to engage with the alternative and effective safety measures that have been set out by the trade unions.

It is not just clinical settings that have been affected. In the last few weeks alone, a score of major retailers, including IKEA, Next and Ocado, have announced that unvaccinated workers will be forced to survive on the pittance that is statutory sick pay should they be forced to self-isolate. What a shame. It is not safety that has motivated this decision; it is profit, pure and simple.

I urge the Minister to consider the implications of the Government’s actions. I fear that this draconian and punitive strategy will do nothing but harden the minds and strengthen the convictions of the vaccine hesitant. The only way to win minds and get jabs in arms is through compassion, engagement and understanding. That will do far more than vaccine mandates ever will in bringing us closer to winning the long war on covid.