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LONDON, UK: The government’s historic about-face on mandatory vaccination for National Health Service (NHS) staff may not prevent widespread damage to the provision of dental care in England, the British Dental Association (BDA) has said. The announcement of a consultation on ending the mandate came as thousands had already reconsidered their future with the service and as treatment backlogs continued to put pressure on dental care, the association said.
UK Dentistry has been left reeling from the dramatic announcement that the government will reverse its plan for mandatory vaccination just days before implementation. The vaccine mandate stipulated that all health and social care workers in England who have face-to-face contact with NHS service users must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by 1 April. Dental staff members in NHS and private practices risked losing their jobs if they did not have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by 3 February.
UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid confirmed the U-turn to MPs on 31 January—just days before the deadline—saying that there were two main factors behind the government’s decision. One factor was that the UK population was better protected against hospitalisation for COVID-19, and the second was that the Omicron variant was intrinsically less severe than Delta, which it had replaced. Javid told MPs: “While vaccination remains our very best line of defence, I believe it is no longer proportionate to require vaccination as a condition of employment by statute.” Javid said that he would launch a consultation on ending vaccination as a condition of employment in health care and social care settings. “Subject to the response and the will of this house, the government will revoke these regulations,” he declared.
The BDA welcomed the announcement in a note to the press, but cautioned that the dental workforce would likely still sustain “collateral damage”. It said that over 1,000 dentists working in England and Wales had ended their NHS contracts last year and that recruitment and retention were already endemic problems within NHS dentistry, where 38 million appointments have been skipped or lost so far during the pandemic.
“This service was already haemorrhaging talent, and these rules would have pushed many dental practices over the edge”
– Dr Eddie Crouch, BDA
The association conducted a survey of UK dentists in December 2021, which confirmed that vaccination status was an issue. Nearly one in ten (9%) high-street dentists said that they had not had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and less than half of respondents believed that their dental nurses were vaccinated. “The BDA is aware that internal consultations in many practices began in earnest following the passage of regulations in December, that notices have already been provided by some hesitant staff, and that significant damage has been sustained to working relationships within many close-knit dental teams,” the association said, adding that it supported the vaccination programme but objected to the mandate.
Dr Eddie Crouch, chair of the BDA’s Principal Executive Committee, said that the announcement had added to the confusion. He commented: “What we needed today was a clean break, instead colleagues now face confusion and real uncertainty as to where they stand in the days and weeks ahead.
“MPs and peers rightly decried the impossibility of scrutinising fast-tracked legislation based on back-of-an-envelope calculations. This service was already haemorrhaging talent, and these rules would have pushed many dental practices over the edge.
“The late return of common sense means millions of patients may still dodge a bullet. However, it remains to be seen how many notices have already been handed in, and what the impact will be on the thousands already reconsidering their futures.”
NHS staff who opposed mandatory vaccination staged protests in several major UK cities in late January, and the Royal College of GPs said that the deadline should be delayed in order to prevent staff shortages.