Munira Wilson: Coercion is not the answer to vaccine hesitancy

Last night, Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the Government’s Statutory Instrument which made vaccinations compulsory for care home staff.

Munira Wilson, our health spokesperson, had a right go at the Government for its approach, pointing out that the care sector had long been undervalued and the Government’s approach had let down so many staff and residents during the pandemic.

She said that, while Liberal Democrats were absolutely in favour of vaccination, we would not support making it mandatory. She said:

Coercion is not an effective way to overcome hesitancy. Compulsory vaccination is a blunt tool for a complex issue, and research has highlighted that pressuring care workers can have damaging effects leading to the erosion of trust, worsening concerns about the vaccine and hardened stances on refusing vaccination. Indeed, digging into the detail shows that the rate of uptake may not be as bad in some places as it initially seems. The data is somewhat encouraging in that there is a significant disparity in the percentage of staff who have taken their first jab and not their second. For instance, Wandsworth has the lowest uptake rate, with 70% of staff having had their first jab but only 53% having had their second. This could indicate that Government and NHS initiatives are bearing fruit, and that mandating vaccination could therefore be premature. Alternatively, it might suggest there is a problem with trying to get care workers back to have their second jabs. This all suggests a much more complex picture, for which this blunt tool is not the answer. As others have said, we risk going down a slippery slope to chip away at people’s rights and freedoms to make their own health choices. This decision sets a precedent and must not be taken lightly.

That leads me to my final point. In part, we have arrived at this situation precisely because the care sector has been overlooked for so long. It has long been a Cinderella service and a poor relation to the NHS, and yet again, we see that this legislation applies only to care home workers and not NHS staff, so it feels discriminatory to many in the care sector. I come back to where I started. I want to protect the most vulnerable, but I fear that these measures will do more harm than good and that we risk a mass exodus of staff from an already overburdened, overstretched and underfunded sector.

In March last year, when my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place and I were asking searching questions of Ministers about testing and PPE to protect care homes, there were no answers. The truth is that the tragedy we have seen unfold in our care homes throughout the pandemic resulted in thousands of excess deaths because the protective ring that Ministers talked about went in far too late. This legislation we are being asked to support is a reaction to Government inaction and failure to protect care homes, and they continue to drag their feet on reforming the sector properly. Coercion and an assault on fundamental rights and liberties should not be the response to this. We must encourage, empower and support people to make the right decision to get vaccinated, and we must pay and value our heroic care staff properly, rather than pointing the finger of blame at them.