Holly Johnston, NHS nurse and GMB rep
86,000 NHS staff face the sack in April if they do not have the Covid-19 vaccine. There are already nearly 100,000 vacancies in the NHS, with 27,000 staff having left between July and September. Making the vaccines mandatory has the potential to tip an already overwhelmed service and stretched workforce over the edge. We simply cannot afford to haemorrhage staff at the worst time in the history of the NHS.
No doubt some capitalists hope that the current staff shortage crisis could be the final nail in the coffin for the NHS, opening it up for further privatisation. Outsourcing agencies already staff large parts of the NHS, making a profit in the process.
Around 95% of NHS staff are already vaccinated. Introducing mandatory vaccination will not convince the remaining 5%. Instead, the government’s policy seeks to divide health workers and deflect blame for its disastrous handling of the pandemic and underfunding of the NHS.
There are many reasons for people’s hesitancy to get the vaccine. Speaking to colleagues as a union rep, many anxieties are eased with education and information. Some reasons include cultural and health issues which cannot simply be address by being told they are ‘wrong’. Others are concerned about having time off with side effects and not being able to afford it, many on precarious zero-hour contracts with no sick pay.
I also have colleagues that are concerned that the vaccine will ‘set-off’ their arthritis for example, or worried it will affect their fertility. The government and NHS bosses, who have given us a dismal 3% pay rise – a real-terms pay cut – left us to work through the pandemic with insufficient PPE, and carried out years of cuts and privatisation, are widely hated and distrusted. They are in no position to convince workers to get the vaccine and the threat of the sack makes it worse.
The health unions need to take a lead. This includes making the case to workers of the benefits of widespread vaccination and opposing making it mandatory, as well as stepping up the fight for a 15% pay rise, which in itself would help address the NHS staffing shortage.
The Tories want to capitalise on the divisions over vaccination. The Socialist Party fights for a political programme that unites workers in a struggle for the NHS we need: a 15% pay rise, to bring outsourced NHS workers back in-house, and for a fully funded, publicly owned and democratically run health service.