Over the course of this pandemic, one of the biggest scandals that has beset the government has been its failure to protect care homes from Covid-19. Despite claims of ‘a protective ring around care homes’, the NHS still discharged untested patients into homes and agency staff still brought the virus in with them, resulting in around 29,000 excess deaths. Matt Hancock does not want a repetition of this with the current rise in cases, especially with Dominic Cummings loudly throwing accusations of incompetence his way.
Fortunately for the Health Secretary, and the rest of us, the UK has an effective vaccine programme that appears to have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations. Unfortunately, the government has decided that people cannot be trusted to get the vaccine and has decided to make it mandatory for care home staff. Those who do not get the vaccine and do not have a medical exemption could lose their jobs or be redeployed away from front-line care.
The reason for doing this is simple – the vaccines work. The Delta variant has caused cases to rise since the middle of May, but deaths have remained flat, with daily deaths rarely surpassing single figures. Vaccines can stop the spread, so it is a good idea for everyone to get vaccinated, especially those who work with the elderly, which is the most likely group to die from Covid.
There are, however, a series of problems with mandating the vaccine for those working in the care sector. First, the care sector is already challenged by staff shortages, which drive up the workload for existing staff and drive down the quality of care. Removing the unvaccinated workers will exacerbate this problem.
Forcing people to take the vaccine could also see them decide to leave of their own accord rather than be told what they must put in their bodies. Even those who had every intention of being vaccinated may well be put off by the government’s coercive approach. In trying to protect care home residents from Covid-19, this policy could see their quality of care greatly reduced.
The second problem with this policy is the threat that it poses to individual liberty. The government has already seized control over who we socialise with and how, where we can go in the world, and what we wear on our faces. Now, the government is going to tell a group of people what they must put in their bodies.
The efficacy of the vaccines is not in question here, and the conspiracy theories around them have no merit. This is more about the rights we have over our own bodies than any concerns over the vaccines themselves. The expansion of the state to control over individuals’ bodily autonomy would have been unthinkable in 2019, but Covid is being used as a licence for the government to exert more power than it should ever have.
The general public may dismiss these concerns as they only affect one sector, and the benefits to care home residents could be seen to outweigh the problems outlined above. But this is naïve. Once care homes have been protected through the mandatory vaccination programme, the case could easily be made that NHS patients are vulnerable, so all NHS staff must be vaccinated. Elderly people stay in hotels and eat in restaurants, so those working in the hospitality sector must be double jabbed. Plenty of people over 70 go out shopping, so retail staff must also be vaccinated. Children can pass it on to their grandparents, so school staff must get the vaccine.
The government has been entirely willing to keep adding new restrictions without any reasonable justification (hence the delay of Freedom Day), so it is likely that the mandatory vaccination programme will go beyond care homes.
This is the point at which we must refuse to trade liberty for safety. Everyone who can get the vaccine should do so, but the government must not be granted the power to mandate it for anyone. The state’s power has expanded enough thanks to this crisis, and the care sector, every other sector, and our own individual freedoms, cannot take any more coercion.
If Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson want to make up for the debacle that was the impact of this crisis on care homes, there are real policy changes that they are already committed to making, such as integrating care so that people’s healthcare needs are being met consistently across all NHS departments and outside care providers. Coupled with a reduction in the excessive bureaucracy that gets in the way, these are much needed reforms that will improve people’s care and do not involve forcing vaccines into people’s arms. The government should focus on these policy changes rather than stepping on yet another individual right.