Complexities of vaccine policy

Submitted by AWL on 13 July, 2021 - 8:07
Covid vaccine stickers

Unite, Unison and GMB leaders’ opposition to compulsory vaccination for care home workers, echoed by Ali Treacher’s article (Solidarity 598), has me in two minds. At the very least, it’s more complicated than presented.

It is undoubtedly a cynical and hypocritical move by a government that has demonstrated extreme disdain for the lives of both workers and care home residents, refusing the most obvious and far more important measures like universal 100% sick pay. However, that hypocrisy doesn’t mean the labour movement should necessarily campaign against the policy itself, or its extension to NHS workers.

We know that vaccination, like masks and other transmission-reducing measures, is not a choice with consequences limited to the individual. It’s a question of social solidarity — each person’s protection relies not only on our own choices, but those of others too. Can we really uphold the individual’s right to refuse well-evidenced vaccines, at the expense of the right to safety for those around them? Should we also resist many NHS trusts’ existing requirements of Hepatitis B vaccination for certain jobs?

Treacher rightly highlights that the policy primarily hits lower-paid, working-class women. But on the other hand, the risk falls most heavily on the most disadvantaged of their clients — and their co-workers.

The strongest case against government compulsion is that it might backfire by pouring fuel on hesitators’ fears. As Treacher says, if it leads to mass resignations, those in need of care will be even worse off. Education is surely the most important tool.

Evidence for population-wide compulsion is poor. But for job-specific compulsion, there is cause for scepticism about claims like the GMB’s announcement that “more than a third of our members in social care would consider packing their jobs in”. Care home operator Barchester already made vaccination compulsory for its employees (with medical exemptions). Coupled with a big push on education and reassurance, it achieved 99% vaccination, far higher than the wider workforce, and only about 0.67% resigned — balanced by applicants attracted by greater workplace safety. Some redeployment may also be feasible.

We can’t assume that a government edict would produce the same results as an employer policy. Further analysis is needed, and the scales of evidence might still tip against compulsion. But at the very least, this is a complex issue, involving competing freedoms and deserving of more nuance, and greater consideration of the mutual responsibilities involved in vaccination, than the big unions’ leaders are offering.

A Unison member, London

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