Vaccination progress but no quick fix

14th February 2021

Concern for workers at Heathrow as the quarantine programme begins

As the vaccination programme across Britain continues its, so far, successful community roll out, pressure is inevitably mounting from the business sector to open up the economy still further.  The hardline Tory MPs, who make up the so called Covid Recovery Group, are calling for the complete opening up of the economy by the end of April.  That such a move would inevitably expose more workers to the dangers of infection does not seem to be high on the list of their concerns or those of employers, keen to return to profit in order to assuage hungry shareholders.

Those in work, unable to work from home, are already in the frontline.  So far there have been no prohibition notices served upon employers by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regarding workplaces not being Covid Secure, even though there have been 3,500 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic.

These dangers mean that many workers, struggle to subsist on reduced furlough income or worse still Universal Credit, while others are forced into calculating the risk of attending a COVID insecure workplace compared to the certainty of ongoing poverty.  The struggle for many to self isolate is a real one. 

There are growing concerns that vaccination take up amongst care home staff is too low, if protection of the most clinically vulnerable is to be effective.  A recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) also estimated that 15% of nurses remain unvaccinated.  Both sets of workers are amongst the most vulnerable due to their frontline work but also due to their low pay and the pressure to stay at work.

In the wider community the situation is further fuelled by a barrage of misinformation perpetrated by vaccination deniers, including Members of Parliament, muddying the waters.  Conspiracy theories range from the vaccine being a means of microchipping the population by the government, to the fallacy that the vaccines contain animal products which may contravene the lifestyle choices or religious beliefs of many.

In spite of this ongoing battle with ignorance the army of NHS staff, local government workers and volunteers continue the task of pushing ahead with the vaccination programme.  All over 70 year olds and those in the higher vulnerable groups will have been offered a vaccine by next week, most will have gladly taken up the offer.  More than 90% of over 75 year olds in the UK have had their first dose.

It is notable that the success of the roll out so far has been due to mobilisation at a local level.  No centralised awarding of contracts to national companies with no public health experience, no high profile government crony appointments to oversee the system.  Just local NHS, local government and voluntary sector organisations on the ground co-operating to deliver the best for their communities.

As long as vaccine supplies can be ensured, an area in which national government unfortunately has to play a role, the local vaccination programme will continue to be delivered.  National government action however continues to be necessary in implementing measures to suppress the spread of new variants, to ensure that all of the effort going on at a local level is not in vain.

To that end the pressure upon the government to close borders has resulted in an initial ‘red list’ of 33 countries being identified.  Travellers into England from these locations, from 15th February, will have to undertake hotel quarantine for 10 days with testing on day 2 and day 8 of their stay.  In Scotland all inbound travellers will be required to undertake the 10 day quarantine period. All inbound travellers will continue to be required to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test to enter the country.

A new department has been set up within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) that will be leading the transfer of passengers from the 33 red-list nations from airports to hotels to begin their 10-day quarantine.  However, neither the police nor Border Force were told who is running the new department, which is understood to be called Managed Quarantine Services.

There are other potential flaws in the plan.  The proposed £1,750 hotel cost may be prohibitive for some.  There are no plans for the regular testing of hotel and security staff.  England’s Department of Health said plans for a “bespoke service” for staff testing were being developed but it could not confirm whether it would be ready for the start of the policy on 15th February.  Over half of the countries with identified cases of the South African variant of COVID 19, against which existing vaccines are least effective, are not on the list.

A spokesman at Heathrow Airport, one of five in England where people requiring hotel quarantine can enter the UK, expressed frustration with the government stating,

 “We have been working hard with the government to try to ensure the successful implementation of the policy from Monday, but some significant gaps remain.  Ministers must ensure there is adequate resource and appropriate protocols in place for each step of the full end-to-end process from aircraft to hotel to avoid compromising the safety of passengers and those working at the airport.”

Nadine Houghton, GMB National Officer representing workers at Heathrow said,

“If you’ve got people getting off planes from the red list countries, then being crammed into areas with passengers who aren’t going into quarantine – and staff as well- you’ve failed at the first hurdle.”

Calls for a blanket quarantine of 14 days for all arrivals in the UK are growing, with experts pointing to the stricter measures taken in China, Australia and New Zealand as having had a significant impact in suppressing outbreaks.

With the government promising a ‘road map’ announcement on 22nd February it is vital that the success of the local vaccination roll out programme is not undermined by those looking to relax measures too quickly.  If the elderly, the vulnerable and those in challenging low paid work are to stand any chance of staying safe, the government must not be swayed by those seeking to make a quick profit.

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