The law, which comes into force in England on November 11, will have a life-changing impact on those leaving the industry, but also those left behind, including vaccinated care home staff and their residents.
Sandra*, who has worked in the social care sector for 14 years, says the past 19 months have been among the hardest of her career.
Like carers across the country, the 51-year-old from Greater Manchester worked through each of the lockdowns. She says the 150-bed home she works at was already short-staffed before the new law was introduced.
“The main problem was staff contracting Covid or their families, and then having to isolate for two weeks which left us short staffed a lot of the time,” she says. “We used agency quite a lot, but unfortunately not a lot of the people we used have been vaccinated, so we will not be able to use them again.”
Using temporary agency staff to plug staffing gaps is not unusual in the care home sector, but the pool of contractors is now likely to shrink, too.
For Sandra, the decision to get vaccinated was an easy one. She says most permanent staff in her home have done the same. People have also applied for open vacancies, with two new vaccinated staff set to start this week, so she’s hopeful they’ll be able to cope without agency staff.
“We were hit quite bad during Covid – residents and staff – I watched a lot of the residents pass away and I don’t want to have to go through that again,” she says. “That’s why I think all staff should be vaccinated to protect themselves and the people they care for.”
Rachel Harrison, national officer at GMB, the union for care workers, says the industry was already facing 170,000 vacancies by the end of the year before the vaccine mandate. She believes this is largely due to the low pay of care staff, causing some to leave the sector and putting others off joining.
“The care sector is past a crisis – it’s on the verge of collapse,” she says. “The workforce can’t cope. GMB is campaigning for a minimum of £15 an hour for care workers, professionalisation of the service, an end to zero hours contracts and proper sick pay.
“Anything less and dedicated carers will continue to leave the profession and the sector will implode.”
The new law stipulates that care home staff in England must be fully vaccinated, but HuffPost UK has spoken to a care home worker in Scotland who says she has already been fired from her workplace after refusing to be vaccinated.
Faye*, a 34-year-old carer based in Angus, had worked full-time in the care home for five and a half years. She was on a zero hours contract, but every week was assigned shifts and worked around 34 hours.
In August, she received a letter and an email, saying that by September 13, every member of staff was expected to be vaccinated.
She told her manager she didn’t want to get the vaccine and from the start of September, she started being left off the rota.
“I was still an employee, but they hadn’t given me any hours,” she says. “My manager told me she was going to speak to somebody from the company. I didn’t hear anything else from her for another three weeks until I got my P45.”
Faye says her reasons for not taking up the vaccine are religious and also that she does not believe it’s been tested extensively enough. She is concerned that low staffing will negatively impact vulnerable care home residents.
“I worry how it will impact residents. We’ve been short-staffed all the time anyway,” she says. ”[Carers are] rushed, they don’t spend enough time with the residents, it’s horrible.”
Faye is now working in a community care role, going into people’s private homes to provide care. As she’s in Scotland, she was able to secure the role without being vaccinated, but is concerned what will happen to her job longterm if the vaccine laws are extended.
He said only those who do not have face-to-face contact with patients or who are medically exempt will be exempt from having to get double vaccinated – with enforcement of the rule from April 1, 2022
The decision also applies to health and wider social care settings that are regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
“I am worrying, because the care job is what I want to do and I’ve been doing this for many years,” says Faye. “But I’m not gonna take it. So if I have to lose the job, then I will, I will lose the job.”
Department of Health data suggests 92.8% of NHS workers have had their first dose and 89.9% have had both doses, while in social care, 83.7% of domiciliary care workers have had their first dose and 74.6% have had both doses.
The nation has been repeatedly warned we’re set for a “challenging winter”, so the impact of the new vaccine law is likely to become apparent in care homes within weeks.
How the situation is handled could provide us with some insight into what faces the NHS when the law is extended fully in 2022.
Although it may mean tougher shifts for vaccinated carers like Sandra, she still thinks a vaccine mandate is the right decision and is proud to continue in a “very challenging but very rewarding” job.
“I can see both sides of the argument about people losing their jobs, but they have known about this for a long time now,” she says. “Speaking for the families on my unit, all of them agree they would rather their family members are cared for by people vaccinated rather than not.”
HuffPost UK has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care to ask how it plans to fill vacancies in the care sector and will update this article when we receive a response.
* Some surnames have been omitted and names changes to offer anonymity.