LONDON - All frontline workers in the National Health Service (NHS) in England will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 from April 1 or lose their jobs, Health Minister Sajid Javid said on Tuesday.
"Having considered the... advice of my officials and NHS leaders including the chief executive of the NHS, I have concluded that all those working in the NHS and social care will have to be vaccinated," he told parliament.
The government had already announced that all care home workers will need to have had both jabs from November 11, but was waiting on the findings of a consultation before extending it to all NHS frontline staff.
Among 34,000 responses, "the scales clearly tip to one side," Javid said.
"The weight of the data shows our vaccinations have kept people safe and they have saved lives and that this is especially true for vulnerable people in health and care settings."
The move comes at a time when the publicly-funded health service is already facing a huge waiting list due to a dramatic reduction in appointments during the pandemic.
The NHS, which is funded from general taxation and National Insurance contributions, is Europe's biggest employer and one of the biggest in the world, with some 1.3 million staff.
Around 90 percent of NHS staff have received at least two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, although the figure is closer to 80 percent in some areas, said Javid.
This means there are up to 100,000 NHS workers in England who are unvaccinated, raising fears about how the service will cope if they lose their jobs.
"The NHS is under the most intense pressure this winter already, we know the waiting lists are at close to 6 million," said Labor's health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth.
"There will be anxiety... that a policy, however laudable in principle, could exacerbate some of these chronic understaffing problems.
"We simply cannot afford to lose thousands of NHS staff overnight," he added.
Nursing union officer Stuart Tuckwood meanwhile warned that "adopting this compulsory approach could actually demoralize staff, could force them to leave the health service at a time when we're very, very much struggling with staffing numbers."
"The NHS is really constantly on a knife edge at the moment in terms of staffing levels," he told AFP.
"It really doesn't take much to push the health service into crisis at the moment."
The British government has been repeatedly criticized for its response to the coronavirus pandemic since the outbreak hit in early 2020.
So far, nearly 142,000 people have died within 28 days of a positive test for COVID.
But ministers have so far resisted calls to impose general vaccine requirements in enclosed public spaces, and although daily case levels have fallen over recent days, the seven-day average is still nearly 37,500.
A freedom of information request by the Daily Telegraph revealed that 11,688 people caught COVID and died after being admitted to NHS hospitals in England for other ailments, the newspaper reported on Monday.
Health policy is controlled by the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Scotland and Wales have already indicated they have no plans to make jabs compulsory for healthcare workers. Northern Ireland is consulting on the issue.
Javid said health workers carry "a unique responsibility" due to being in close contact "with some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
"A job in health or care is like no other, it cannot be business as usual when it comes to vaccination," he said.
© Agence France-Presse