Mandatory vaccinations will have long-term effects on the care home sector 


By Neil Russell | March 31, 2022

The Government’s decision to revoke the need for compulsory vaccinations for care staff was the right one, but the damage has already been done – and it will have long-term effects on the sector, says Neil Russell, Chairman of PJ Care. 

When the Government announced it was revoking the law that made it mandatory for health and social care staff to have been vaccinated against COVID-19 on 17th February, I had mixed feelings. While on the one hand I was delighted that the Government had finally seen sense on the ridiculous mandate, on the other I was angry because it had already caused unnecessary and irrevocable damage to a sector that has suffered more than most during the pandemic.  

I was also annoyed because it was something the Government was warned about when it was considering the move to making vaccinations compulsory last summer. The sector was vocal about the effects it would inevitably have – that it would lead to tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, adding pressure to a sector already struggling to recruit the numbers it requires.  

A consultation into this found that 57% were against the legislation, UNISON spoke out against the move warning of the impact it would have, and I, together with 10 national organisations, which comprised the Care Provider Alliance, made representation to the House of Lords to pause the legislation.  

However, the sector’s protestations fell on deaf ears and I was appalled when it was made compulsory. It seems there is little point in having consultations with the sector if you are not going to listen. I thought that the care home sector was used as the ‘guinea pig’ for the mandatory vaccination scheme – to see if it worked before rolling it out to the NHS – and it forced many people to choose between a jab and the job they love.  

It was only when the NHS provided a similar backlash and the Government realised how many staff they could potentially lose, and what that would do to an already struggling service, that it started to reconsider. Fortunately, the Omicron variant took over as the dominant variant, which proved less fatal than previous strains, and the Government felt able to revoke COVID-19 restrictions. 

While vaccinating care workers remains important, I believe that greater protection can be achieved by ensuring residents are vaccinated, combined with diligent infection control measures and effective use of PPE. That’s the way we will best protect vulnerable people in all our care facilities. 

Loss of experience 

My company, PJ Care, which provides specialist care for adults with degenerative neurological conditions such as dementia, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and those with acquired brain injuries, was affected by the decision, as was just about every other care home services provider. 

I have always supported staff being vaccinated against COVID-19 – and still do – and we had been proactive in encouraging staff to get a vaccination, including bringing in a ‘vaccination bus’ and entering staff who had been vaccinated into a raffle for a new car. 

As a result, most of our team had already been vaccinated when the mandate was due to take effect. 

Staff members had a range of reasons for not wanting to get a vaccination – including concerns over health, religious reasons and, having staff from 44 nations, some were not culturally trusting of vaccines. While we gave them as much information and reassurance as we could, we had to respect their decision.  

Nevertheless, we still lost 24 of our 600 staff when vaccinations became mandatory, who had a combined experience of 100 years. But we were luckier than most: 40,000 staff were sacked because of the regulations and some care providers have already been forced to close because of this, plus the impact of COVID-19 on exhausting their workforce and Brexit creating barriers to recruitment from Europe.  

While our recruitment activities since then mean we have replaced the staff lost, it was an expensive exercise, costing upwards of £100,000. On top of that there was the time cost – having to recruit and train new staff has taken others away from their day-to-day roles. If we extrapolate those figures across the industry, the total cost to the sector is more than £160 million. When you consider that 64% of care is funded by the state, that is an unnecessary cost to the taxpayer of over £100 million. 

But what cannot be replaced quickly is the experience that we lost and the relationships they had built up with the people they cared for. That will take years to recover and is something being repeated at care facilities up and down the country. 

Returning problems 

While there may be one or two of those who left us who may want to come back, I think many will have found the experience too challenging to want to return. 

I’ve had overseas staff who left in November who’ve now returned to their home countries. Meanwhile, others have found new jobs and would be reluctant to leave those to return to a sector that they feel has kicked them in the teeth.  

Some may have found better paid work and, with the cost of living rising sharply this year, while they might want to return to work in care – a job they still love – it might not be enough to pay their bills. 

Recruitment has been a problem for care providers for many years – there have been north of 100,000 vacancies in the sector for some time – and it will continue to be so until the question of how the sector is funded is addressed. While care providers might want to give care staff the sort of pay rises they deserve, they are unable to because the fees they are paid by local authorities to provide care are at such a level that they cannot and still remain financially viable. This is only exacerbated by the rising costs of energy, fuel and food. With inflation well over 5% at the moment, we are only seeing average fee increases of around half this, so our ability to pay staff what they deserve is only going to get harder. 

This is something the Government should focus on now. Having made the recruitment problem worse in the sector, ensuring that it is funded properly could go at least some way to solving the issue as it would mean providers could start offering better pay to staff. Campaigns involving celebrities extolling the virtues of care as a career – as recently launched by the DHSC – might look good, but they are little more than window dressing. 

 

About Neil Russell

Neil Russell is the Chair of neurological care provider PJ Care. PJ Care provides neurological care for adults with progressive conditions such as dementia, Huntington’s disease and acquired brain injuries. The company runs two specialist care centres in Milton Keynes and another in Peterborough. 

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