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LONDON, UK: Last week, UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid announced that frontline healthcare workers in England—including dentists working either for the NHS or in a private setting—will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 from April 2022 to continue working in their current capacity. The news has drawn a mixed response thus far from medical unions and organisations including the British Dental Association (BDA), whose chief executive stated it “risks undermining already fragile access at [dental] practices across the country”.
Javid made the statement last week in the House of Commons and noted that he had consulted with medical officials and NHS leaders about the vaccine mandate. According to Javid, more than 90% of NHS staff in England have already received two COVID-19 vaccine doses—leaving approximately 103,000 healthcare workers in the country unvaccinated. He indicated that staff who do not engage in face-to-face contact with patients, as well as those who have not been vaccinated owing to medical reasons, will be exempt from next April’s mandate.
“We must avoid preventable harm and protect patients in the NHS, protect colleagues in the NHS and, of course, protect the NHS itself,” Javid said.
Fears mandate could exacerbate worker shortages
Javid’s announcement was met with a lukewarm reaction by many medical and dental representative bodies in the UK, and several pointed to the potential negative consequences that a mandate could have on NHS staff numbers and patient waiting times.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, praised the UK Government for delaying the policy’s introduction until after the upcoming colder months, when “immediate winter pressures should have eased”. He warned, however, that there was “a real risk that mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations could aggravate staffing pressures” owing to unvaccinated healthcare workers leaving their occupations in protest.
“If this is done well, mandatory vaccination will help reduce the risk of infections in healthcare settings,” Hopson wrote.
He continued: “And while a number of staff may be redeployed or leave the service, there is a hope that a mandate may reduce staff sickness absences, and some colleagues may feel less anxious about contracting or spreading COVID-19 to their loved ones.”
BDA expresses its concerns
In a statement issued on 12 November, Martin Woodrow, the chief executive of the BDA, stated that, whereas the dental trade union remained “strongly supportive of the COVID-19 vaccination programme” in the UK, it believed that Javid’s strategy could potentially reduce England’s dental workforce and have a deleterious effect on patients.
“There have long been issues recruiting dentists to work in practices, particularly to NHS roles, and the last year saw the number of dentists working in the NHS fall by 951, reducing the workforce to 2013–14 levels,” he said.
Woodrow added: “Even a small reduction in the available workforce will have a substantial impact on service delivery. Ministers risk further restricting access to patients, who are already facing long waits for treatment, and put at risk the financial viability of many dental practices, who will face financial penalties if they fail to meet NHS targets.”
Vaccine hesitancy continues to be a problem
As Dental Tribune International has previously reported, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is surprisingly commonplace among dental workers and students. A study from May 2021 of 11,584 healthcare workers in the UK found that 23% were hesitant to receive a vaccine. According to the researchers, some of the independent predictors of hesitancy include younger age, female sex, lower trust in employer, lack of influenza vaccine uptake in the previous season and pregnancy.
Meanwhile, a study of dental students’ attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines conducted by a contingent of researchers across European and Palestinian universities revealed that an alarming 22.5% were hesitant, whereas 13.9% rejected the vaccines outright. The socio-economic status of the countries where the students lived and studied was found to have a significant influence on vaccine acceptancy—30.4% of respondents in low- and lower-middle-income countries were hesitant, compared with 19.8% in upper-middle- and high-income countries.