Law on mandatory vaccination for NHS staff to be repealed

In a last-minute U-turn, the beleaguered prime minister has realised that this is one battle he can do without.

Proletarian writers

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NHS workers say: ‘No mandatory vaccination!’

Proletarian writers

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On Monday 31 January 2022, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) announced that it “will not take action against hospitals which decide, after a risk assessment, that it is safer to keep unvaccinated staff in place”.

It was referring to the roughly 80,000 NHS staff who have to date chosen not to have the novel coronavirus vaccines offered to the public in the United Kingdom, and who are consequently under the threat of being sacked if not fully vaccinated by 1 April.

This was the first sign that, contrary to his government’s heavy-handed threats, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid is set to admit defeat, beset as he is by a hail of criticism of the senseless and authoritarian policy passed into law under his stewardship.

Hospital managers and clinicians across the country have warned that if the government were to force them to follow through on these threats, many National Health Service hospitals, clinics and units around the country would be left (even more) dangerously understaffed.

On 9 November 2021, Mr Javid set the juggernaut in motion, when he announced that all staff who work in health and social care settings regulated by the CQC would have to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by 1 April 2022:

“We must avoid preventable harm and protect patients in the NHS, protect colleagues in the NHS, and protect the NHS itself,” he said.

This legislation, initially requiring care home workers to be vaccinated in order to work was passed into law two days later. But it was clear from the outset that this set a precedent that might go on to affect all workers, first in the wider health sector but then for workers in any ‘public-facing’ role or office environment.

Within weeks of the legislation being passed, thousands of care home workers had lost their jobs. “About 50,000 care home staff who have not had two doses in England will not be allowed to work … Analysis by the Guardian suggests that on current staff/resident ratios and without other measures to tackle the problem, the care of about 30,000 people could be affected.” (Care homes in England set to lose 50,000 staff as Covid vaccine becomes mandatory by Robert Booth, The Guardian, 10 November 2021)

At that time, the Delta Covid variant dominated in Britain, and the policy may have had a certain degree of support amongst an elderly and vulnerable population group who had sustained the vast majority of the UK’s 200,000 pandemic deaths. But even at that time it was clear that immunity levels to Covid were now high, the worst of the pandemic was over, and almost all care home residents were protected by their vaccinations, which the elderly population took up with enthusiasm.

Apparently buoyed by the passage of this legislation, on 4 December Javid introduced further legislation into the House of Commons, to pass a Covid vaccine mandate for all NHS workers in England into law. Simultaneous promulgation of Covid passports ‘for large venues’ was also passed in the same sitting, as part of so-called ‘plan B’ legislation.

Westminster MPs voted by 385 to 100 – a majority of 285 – in favour of mandatory vaccination and Covid passports. It is worth noting that this paltry degree of dissent from the commons came not from Labour – among whose MPs there was virtually unanimous support for the draconian policies – but from the right-wing libertarian sections of the Tory party.

What do NHS workers think?

While visiting Kings College Hospital ITU, on 10 January, where this author has also worked, Sajid Javid made the rather foolish mistake of asking NHS employees about their opinion of his mandatory vaccination policy live on camera.

While a group of staff demonstrated their sound understanding of the often heard of but rarely seen ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of criticism’ that exists throughout the NHS, and British society in general – protecting themselves by answering with dumb silence – one young consultant ITU physician, a Dr Steve James, volunteered his opinion. As the cameras slowly panned in his direction and the national spotlight briefly turned stage left, his words were refreshingly ‘off-message’, and no doubt anathema to the health secretary.

“I haven’t been vaccinated. I don’t want to be vaccinated. I have had Covid. I have antibodies. Yet, having had Covid, I am as protected as anyone who has been vaccinated. The vaccine protects you from getting Covid for two months. If we wanted everyone to be protected from transmitting Covid, all staff would have to be boosted every month. We’re not going to do that. The science just isn’t strong enough. Omicron offers a chance to rethink and discard that legislation.”

The science of which he speaks is correct. Covid is real and has likely claimed as many as 20 million lives worldwide. It is patently true that the elderly and vulnerable are greatly personally protected by vaccination against the most important markers of Covid – hospitalisation and death.

It is also true that we know who are the most vulnerable to the worst effects of Covid far better now than we did when Covid was just a mysterious cause of viral pneumonia, a newly described and highly contagious Sars virus characterised and reported to the World Health Organisation and the international community by the Chinese, who described and outbreak and their measures to arrest the contagion in Wuhan back in December 2019.

Equally true, and salient in this regard, are the facts that Covid vaccination with the AstraZenica, Pfizer or Moderna vaccines do not stop one getting Covid or passing it on. This is particularly true with the more infectious but clinically milder Omicron strain of the virus that is now dominant in Britain.

Several studies have shown that by three months after vaccination, blood antibody levels have subsided to a level that means the risk of the vaccinated population transmitting Covid is the same as that of the unvaccinated. What’s more, immune protection for those who have had the virus is higher than those who have only been vaccinated, and seems to confer more protection against disparate variants compared to those who have been vaccinated without Covid exposure.

None of this is surprising. It also explains why the Chinese Coronavac vaccination, based on whole denatured virus, is more effective against variants than those based on RNA sequences or proteins relating to the Sars-Cov-2 spike protein alone.

Government itself not convinced of the evidence

The House of Lords, when scrutinising Javid’s proposed legislation, stated in its own report published on 30 November that the benefit of increasing the protection from vaccinating staff who had not yet taken up offers of the jab “may be marginal” and that the government had failed to publish any contingency plans on how it would cope with the loss of staff who do not want the vaccine. (Review of Draft Health and Social Care Act 2008 by House of Lords secondary legislation scrutiny committee, 25 November 2021)

The report estimated that of the 208,000 NHS staff who weren’t then vaccinated at the time of writing [in November 2021] 54,000 (26 percent) would take up the vaccine under the law and 126 ,000 (61 percent) would leave their jobs.

In fact, under the heavy coercion of the threat to their livelihoods, families, patients and vocations, many have been pressured into accepting the vaccination, but around 80,000 have held out, refusing to be cowed by any threat.

“Given the legislation is anticipated to cause £270m in additional recruitment and training costs and major disruption to the health and care provision at the end of the grace period, very strong evidence should be provided to support this policy choice. DHSC [Department for Health and Social Care] has not provided such evidence,” it said.

Is the pandemic drawing to a close?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on ongoing random sampling of the population, now estimates that there is over 98 percent Covid antibody prevalence within the UK, and even greater levels of immunity.

Combined with the infectious but relatively mild nature of the Covid Omicron strain, this has in fact left the 66 million UK citizens well protected against Covid, and the overwhelming majority (although regrettably not all) are now either asymptomatic or experiencing only mild  cold or flu-like symptoms when they get ill.

Capitalism and greed

This is not to say that the government has handled the pandemic well. On the contrary, throughout the last two pandemic-dominated years, the Tory government has fallen over itself to demonstrate its cupidity, bowing before its twin gods of “capitalism and greed”, in the words of our prime minister, Boris Johnson.

“Protect the economy, herd immunity and if a few pensioners die – so be it,” was indeed the true strategy of the government, let slip in 2020 in the form of a leaked Dominic Cummings cabinet briefing. His spectacular fall-out with his erstwhile friend and boss, Boris, has given us a useful insight into the inner workings of British (Tory, but not only Tory) government, which has done neither credit but given much substantiating evidence of the callous disregard and contempt for Britain’s workers in the views of our political ruling caste and economic elite.

One scandal after another, one corrupt contract after another, one inadequate policy after another has hit home as this corrupt administration lurches on, unopposed by political forces inside or outside Westminster, but increasingly discredited in the eyes of all.

Inadequate PPE, not enough ventilators, and the excuse these shortages afforded for the government to overspend and throw hundreds of millions (even billions) of pounds in unscrutinised government contracts to its wealthy friends and donors … all this was accompanied by the changing of guidelines to allow elderly patients to be ‘triaged’ out of intensive care to wards en masse, where no effective care beyond oxygen therapy could be given.

GPs were pressured into asking the elderly to make advanced declarations that they would not want ITU treatment should they contract Covid, and the virus itself was down-regulated to a ‘non-high consequence infectious disease’ precisely in order to allow it to spread freely within the population, without having to invoke the rigorous measures of isolation that would otherwise have been called for. International borders were kept open, allowing the virus to spread from Europe as the affluent returned from their half-term skiing holidays in February 2020. Forty billion pounds was gifted by the Treasury to Serco for test and trace measures that were blatantly ineffective while the NHS was ignored and sidelined.

Throughout the entire pandemic, far from being ‘protected’, the NHS has been further dismantled, and its ability to manage community infection and plan health for public health needs in the midst of the pandemic was sabotaged by the abolition of Public Health England. The discharging of thousands of Covid-positive patients into care homes, the understaffing of ambulance services, and the “Stay at home. Save lives. Protect the NHS” mantra together led to the deaths of tens of thousands of elderly and vulnerable patients in their homes.

The government totally failed to take note of advice from the World Health Organisation and from China on how to effectively adopt a zero-Covid strategy, thus protecting the population and economy from the virus. The total concentration of economic policy was on bailing out the wealthiest billionaires during the financial crash and the ensuing global depression, while leaving the most vulnerable workers totally unsupported and unable to isolate when they caught the virus. NHS staff who spoke out against the impact of incompetent management and deliberately  harmful policies on social media were threatened with the sack.

As a result of these last two years, we have been brought face to face with the startling under-capacity of the NHS to meet the health needs of the population – its grossly inadequate numbers of acute and ITU beds, its poorly staffed and equipped services, its ageing facilities.

Britain’s workers are increasingly aware that the NHS has been deliberately disorganised and is being carved up and handed over to the private sector. Few realise that NHS finances themselves are being increasingly administered by management consultancies and US health insurance giants. The information that the entire pandemic debacle, with the NHS “falling over due to lack of beds, ventilators and PPE” was predicted all the way back in 2016 Operation Cygnus has been almost entirely suppressed.

The fact is that Operation Cygnus’s findings were buried precisely in order to protect the policy of NHS privatisation, and the massive profits that process has been accruing to the finance capitalists. The pandemic report was shelved and the NHS continued to be sabotaged.

Why not just get vaccinated?

Is it, under these circumstances, any wonder that very many people in Britain do not trust our government or its motivations? It is the most poor and economically marginalised – the black and Asian population and the young – who are most likely to reject vaccination.

That is not an accident. It is based on their life experience – as well as on the perceived risk of the virus itself versus the risk of accepting rapidly-developed vaccines. The total over-reliance on the few vaccines, produced for profit, by the giant pharmaceutical monopolies has driven this message home to millions of workers in Britain and around the world.

Conflict of interests: global health vs. global capital

The priorities of Anglo-American imperialism, of monopoly capitalism, of Wall Street and the City of London, have been made amply clear by their total unwillingness to distribute their vaccines gratis, or waive their property rights (patents) to allow the poorest nations to manufacture their own supplies of vaccine and protect their populations; by the US and Britain’s use of the problems of Covid to further attempt to destabilise governments who oppose their regime of global usury and exploitation (Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Russia, China, Korea, etc); and by their neglect of the first developed and safest vaccines – from which Anglo-American finance capital will not make billions in profit.

To the 90 percent of the world’s population who are condemned, in varying degrees, to lives of penury and oppression by the current global capitalist order, particularly in this period of global economic depression, this is simply a confirmation of everything that they already experienced and knew before they ever head the terms Sars-Cov-2 or Covid-19.

To many workers in the relatively privileged centres of western imperialism, who are seeing their living conditions deteriorate rapidly and are deeply discontented with the direction of travel during the Covid period, a large number may associate almost all of their growing feeling of alienation with the virus itself.

It is little wonder that so many feel that there is a global conspiracy against them – there is. What many haven’t yet fully grasped is that the global conspiracy is monopoly capitalism itself, and the state machines that the billionaires have suborned to their interests.

Who are the ‘anti-vax’ NHS staff?

These are staff who have worked throughout the pandemic, unprotected by inadequate PPE, but as we now know, protected by their demographic profile – of being relatively young, relatively fit and relatively healthy.

They were asked to work, for paltry wages, throughout the first wave when there was no effective treatment and hundreds of their colleagues across the country died in the line of duty – giving patient care, serving their communities, serving the working people of Britain.

Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock (remember him?) led us in applause for their efforts (even Nigel Farage joined in!) while using the opportunity to pass Covid emergency laws that eroded our right to a jury trial, eroded our right to see evidence upon which any action may be taken against us by the state (habeus corpus), weakened the planning laws so Robert Jenrick could push through schemes in the interest of his billionaire developer friends (but not in the interest of the community or the environment), siphoned billions of pounds to bail out companies going bankrupt in the face of the 2020 stock market collapse and ensuing global recession – entirely against the dogma of their ‘free-market’ economics, let it be said – and, of course, passed tens and hundreds of billions of pounds to monopoly capital under the cover of ‘dealing with Covid’.

While a review of mortality and cases has led to the jettisoning of ‘plan B’ legislation, a return to work, a reduction in isolation times, and the reduction of testing rigour, there had until the message on 31 January from the CQC been no move to roll back the legislation on mandatory vaccination for NHS staff.

Leaked Whitehall documents openly state that “The low VE [vaccine effectiveness] against infection (and consequently effect on transmission) plus the lower risk posed by Omicron brings into question both the rationality of the VCOD2 policy and its proportionality and makes the case for vaccination requirement weaker than when [ministers] decided on the policy.”

A few weeks ago there were 120,000 unvaccinated NHS workers. Now that figure has fallen to 80,000. In an NHS that is chronically short of staff, will sacking 80,000 nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, administrators, radiographers, dieticians, midwives and other key workers benefit the service?

There is particular concern about maternity units as hospitals are already 2,500 midwives short. Matthew Trainer, the chief executive of Barking, Havering and Redbridge NHS trust in London, said recently that the loss of unvaccinated midwives, coupled with the fact that it already had a 10 percent vacancy rate among those specialists, “would put us in quite a serious position”.

Ministers have been issued with a stark warning over mandatory Covid vaccines for NHS workers in England, with a leaked document saying growing evidence on the Omicron variant casts doubts over the new law’s “rationality” and “proportionality”.

More than 70,000 NHS staff – 4.9 percent – could remain unvaccinated by 1 April, the document says. NHS trusts in England are preparing to start sending dismissal letters from 3 February to any member of staff who has not had their first dose by then. (Health department warning over vaccine mandate for NHS staff in England by Aubrey Allegretti and Denis Campbell, The Guardian, 18 January 2022)

The NHS could be forced to dismiss almost 2,000 midwives by the government’s mandatory vaccination policy, amid warnings from a former chief nurse of England that mothers and babies will be put at risk.

“Well-placed senior sources have told HSJ around 1,700 midwives remain unvaccinated nationally, according to the latest data from trusts. Based on official headcount data that would amount to between 6.5 to 8 per cent of the workforce, depending on whether it counts full time equivalent or total staff numbers.” (‘Babies at risk’ as NHS faces losing nearly one in 10 midwives over mandatory jabs by Annabelle Collins and Nick Kituno, HSJ, 21 January 2022)

On Tuesday 25 January, the Royal College of Nursing said the leaked memo should prompt ministers to call a halt to the imposition of compulsory jabs, which it called “reckless”. “The government should now instigate a major rethink,” said Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s England director. “Mandation is not the answer and sacking valued nursing staff during a workforce crisis is reckless.” (The Guardian, 18 January 2022, op cit)

On the hospital ward where this author works, eight nurses out of 32 do not want the vaccine – AstraZenica, Moderna or Pfizer. Of course, neither the world’s first, most efficacious and safest vaccine, the Russian Sputnik V, nor the world’s most widely-used vaccine, China’s Sinovac, nor the Cuban state-owned biotech industry developed Soberana and Abdala are available – they are, in fact, banned for political and economic reasons, to denigrate the achievements of these countries and to protect the profits of Anglo-American and European pharmaceutical monopolies.

And while that may not have struck you before, it lies at the very heart of our government’s entire response to the pandemic – and the reason that while in Cuba entirely voluntary vaccination rates are 98 percent, in Britain a very large percentage of the population lacks any faith that our political leaders and the corporate interests they represent have any genuine concern for the health of ordinary working people.

Medicine as a commodity

The purpose of commodity exchange under capitalism is not to satisfy man’s wants but to accumulate surplus value – to make a profit. In order to sell, a product must have utility, but that is entirely a secondary characteristic as far as the market and the finance capitalist are concerned. If a product turns out to be faulty – a car that catches fire in three percent of cases owing to a known fault, say – the company will be more likely to hide the fault, maximise the sales, aggressively fight all legal claims and settle only when absolutely necessary than to make any change to its product in the interests of safety.

The global pharmaceutical monopolies are particularly well-known for this approach. Anyone who has watched an episode of Suits, in which HRH Meghan Markle played a prominent role, will see the glorification of this culture in full. Anyone who watches Michael Moore’s film Sicko, or Bob Gill’s The Great NHS Heist will see the disgusting consequences of that culture – that in the boardroom, and it is there that the final economic decisions are taken, corporate greed takes precedence over every other aspect of healthcare.

Many have become aware of these disgusting features of capitalism for the first time during the Covid pandemic, because it, and the accompanying global economic depression, has affected us all.

Having printed or electronically ‘created’ money like it’s going out of fashion, and pumped trillions of dollars from state funds to corporations and into the stock market, the global economy is entering a period of stagflation. Wages are falling. Costs of commodities are soaring. The economy is hothousing itself on credit, and the next stock market fall is surely just around the corner.

Meanwhile, we have learned much about the virus – and about the government’s response to it. We know that the young and the healthy are relatively unlikely to become severely unwell from Covid-19, but that it cruelly targets the old and infirm. Entirely appropriately, then, the old and infirm, and most healthcare workers, have jumped at the possibility of vaccination.

As the vaccines rolled out from their limited and hastily conducted trials, the real-life trial on tens and hundreds of millions of recipients have shown them to be overwhelmingly safe and effective against the worst outcomes – but they have also brought to light several risks of vaccination, particularly amongst the young and the healthy.

There are undoubtedly people who have died from the vaccines – as a result of DVTs and PEs, or from anaphylaxis or cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. And there are others, including children, who have become seriously unwell from conditions such as myocarditis and pericarditis. Moreover, many who did not have access to the vaccination have become immune through Covid infection.

Globally as stated above, many millions have undoubtedly died from Covid. All this stands as a monument to the fact that capitalism has outlived its usefulness to humanity, is long passed its sell-by date, and must go.

Where is the opposition?

The TUC, with characteristic radicalism, called on 7 January for the government to “delay” the introduction of mandatory vaccinations for NHS workers in bid to avert a staffing crisis. Presumably it would have sent a strongly worded letter calling for a ‘delay’ to the 2003 bombing campaign in Iraq (‘to allow the sanctions regime to maximise the civilian death toll first’. In fact, the much-praised ‘radical socialist’ Tony Benn made just such a speech in Trafalgar Square on the eve of Labour’s 2003 war.)

Labour MPs under Keir Starmer have fallen over themselves to agree with every measure that the government has taken, including mandatory vaccination and Covid passports. These measures are not ‘backed by the science’. Indeed, it is very hard to cherry-pick any evidence that supports the policies if viewed from the point of view of protecting the health of the British public.

The only way such policies can be understood is when we consider that the chief aims of the monopoly capitalists, their Tory government, and their loyal Labour opposition, are:

  1. To maximise profits at all costs – including, if necessary, the loss of hundreds of thousands of workers’ lives.
  2. To use every subterfuge to confuse and disorient the working class so that no organised opposition to their exploitation can arise.
  3. To lay the legislative groundwork for the state to take every draconian measure against the slightest show of organised resistance when civil disobedience and unrest inevitably break out.

No legislation, of course, can in the final analysis protect the unjust economic order or its rabid servants from the rising anger of the global population. In the end it will be ignored and overturned in a festival of the oppressed.