An army of volunteers could be needed this winter to tackle rising staff shortages in care homes fuelled by the looming requirement for all care home workers to be fully vaccinated against coronavirus, providers have said.
As the health secretary, Sajid Javid, urged care workers to book their jabs in time to meet the 11 November deadline for all staff in registered care homes in England to be fully vaccinated, the Independent Care Group said operators could be forced to hand back contracts to councils or close care homes and relocate residents because of a staffing crisis, exacerbated by ongoing vaccine hesitancy among a minority of staff. It is leading calls for retired nurses, doctors, carers, to be trained and DBS-checked to fill vacancies in case of a feared “winter meltdown” in staff numbers.
One in five workers on the books of a care worker agency in Sheffield are declining the vaccine, according to Nicola Richards, the director of Palms Row Healthcare. She also reported an “alarming” drop in the number of workers signing up, with many put off by the “no jab, no job” policy. She has been unable to provide temporary staff to some clients in recent weeks.
The government last month calculated that in a worst-case scenario as many as 68,000 care workers – up to 12% – could be lost as a result of the decision to make vaccination a condition of employment in care homes. A more likely prediction is 40,000, but care managers say that even small numbers of people refusing the vaccine will impact services because rotas are already threadbare, with well over 100,000 vacancies in the sector.
A survey at the weekend of care home managers by the Institute of Health and Social Care Management found 58% of operators believed they would have to lay off at least some staff by 11 November based on current rates of vaccination. More than a quarter (28%) of the 681 care operators who responded said they had already lost up to five staff. Three said they had lost more than 20 each.
Job adverts seeking replacements sometimes produce no applicants for posts that are highly demanding but pay on average just £8.50 an hour. Calls for a cash boost from the government to increase wages have so far gone unheeded. Post-Brexit restrictions on recruiting abroad had also compounded problems, operators said.
“We need some urgent funding to be put in place, like the government did with infection control, to enable providers to address pay within the sector and help them to recruit, because staff shortages are now becoming critical,” said Mike Padgham, the chair of the Independent Care Group. “Just when we need to recruit more people, [the government] put a block on it. It is like you are having to fight the pandemic and the government at the same time.”
HC-One, the largest private provider, is this week writing to all unvaccinated staff urging them to get their first jab by 16 September.
“It’s absolutely terrifying to think of what we have with winter pressure coming,” said Richards, who operates two care homes. “Over the last four weeks we have seen the staff challenges we had last April when we were hit hard [by the first wave of the pandemic].”
Workers were still citing beliefs over the vaccines’ impact on fertility, but Richards said many were refusing because they objected to social care being the only part of the health system where vaccination was being made a condition of employment. The latest available data, from June, showed that in London almost a quarter of staff were completely unvaccinated while across England the figure was 16%.
Richards called for the government to ease rules on recruitment from abroad after her fast-track application to bring in workers from countries like India was rejected. She will have to wait up to 12 weeks to find out if she can fill vacancies internationally.
On Monday Javid said in a message to care operators that vaccination “remains the most important tool for protecting your physical health and the health of the people you care for”. He said: “The ‘vaccination as a condition of deployment’ grace period ends 11 November this year, so if you haven’t booked your first or second dose, please do so as soon as you can.”
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “It is our responsibility to do everything we can to reduce the risk for the most vulnerable and, following extensive public consultation, we have taken an approach that reflects the experiences and concerns of both providers and people living and working in care homes.
“We continue to work with the care sector to encourage all adult social care staff to get vaccinated in local areas where vaccine uptake is lower so care homes are able to comply with the new regulations which come into force in November.”