Every social worker whose duties require them to enter an adult care home will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19, unless they are medically exempt, the government has announced.
The requirement means best interests assessors, practitioners undertaking care reviews or those visiting care homes as part of safeguarding enquiries will have to have had both doses of the vaccine, as will all care home staff and others visiting homes as part of their professional duties, except in emergencies.
The policy – which will come into force following a 16-week grace period after the relevant regulations gain parliamentary approval – has been criticised by provider and union leaders for risking loading further staffing pressures onto social care.
It is an expansion of that put forward in a government consultation on the compulsory vaccination of care home staff, as it will apply to Care Quality Commission-regulated homes for working age adults as well as older people.
The Social Care Working Group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has determined that an uptake rate of 80% in staff and 90% in residents for a single dose will provide a minimal level of protection to residents.
Across England as a whole, 65% of homes are currently reaching the minimum level of staff uptake – though in London it is just 44% – and over 1.2m social care workers have been vaccinated, 78% of those entitled to a jab.
The government has also announced it will carry out a further consultation on whether to make having had a Covid-19 and flu vaccination a condition of deployment in health and care settings more generally.
The 16-week grace period after parliamentary approval is designed to to enable those not yet vaccinated to be so. The government has said a majority of social care staff will be eligible for their second dose eight weeks after their first. People cannot be vaccinated within 28 days of having Covid-19.
Visiting family and friends, under-18s, emergency services and those undertaking urgent maintenance work will be exempt from the requirement.
A vaccination equalities committee, led by NHS England and Improvement, with representatives of the Association of Directors of Public Health, local authorities, fire and police services and third sector organisations, will advise and guide the vaccine deployment programme on addressing inequalities in the vaccine roll out.
The government will be delivering targeted support to increase vaccinations among care home staff in areas with a low level of vaccine uptake.
The government received over 13,500 responses to the consultation and said there was “significant support” for broadening the policy to include all coming into close contact with care residents.
However, the policy drew a critical response from some provider and union leaders.
Vic Rayner, chief executive officer of the National Care Forum, said it would cause care homes significant implementation challenges by “encompassing almost everyone who crosses the care home threshold”.
She described it as “a logistical nightmare for care homes who will find themselves legally responsible for checking and verifying the vaccination status or exemption of people whom they have no employment or personnel oversight”.
Rayner warned that unless more detail and support were provided rapidly, “there are real risks of creating further staffing pressures and unwittingly placing managers in the role of bouncer as they try to operate an unworkable vaccination door policy”.
Christine McAnea, general secretary of Unison, agreed that the policy risked deepening staffing pressures in adult social care. She said: “The government’s sledgehammer approach now runs the risk that some care staff may simply walk away from an already understaffed, undervalued and underpaid sector.”
She added: “The NHS has been successfully vaccinating the public and its own staff for more than six months. There’s no reason to change this successful approach.”
However, Pete Calveley, chief executive officer of Barchester, which has over 200 care homes in the UK, said he supported the policy, based on its experience of mandating vaccinations among its staff since February.
He said: “We have carried out extensive engagement programmes with staff, as well as 1-1 support to encourage this…“As a result we are seeing strong uptake and positive engagement with Covid-19 vaccination, and we are delighted that the outcome is that 99% of our staff are willing to have the vaccine.”