A government spokesperson said earlier this week that “appropriate arrangements” are being made for government ministers, including the First Minister, to help out. A more cynical person than I might suggest that the arrangements will include several photo-opportunities of Sturgeon in her best Mother Theresa pose, but it’s Christmas, so I will resist the temptation.
It’s Christmas, but not as we had planned. As one, we have packed away our party frocks, finished our shopping online and hunkered down at home, fingers crossed that no-one catches the dreaded Omicron before the big day. Friends have already messaged me, distraught that their much anticipated family get-together may be cancelled as family members succumb to the new variant.
But we will survive the disrupted festivities, even if it is the second year running we will have to forgo our annual game of Monopoly. The existential threat posed by Omicron is not to our party plans, but to our health and social care services.
As the new variant threatens to overwhelm the NHS, the British Medical Association warns of staffing shortages and high demand for hospital beds. “To get through this, we must do all we are asked to limit spread,” pleaded BMA Scotland chair Lewis Morrison this week.
And that includes getting vaccinated. Scotland has done remarkably well getting needles into arms. By Wednesday, 83.3 per cent of Scots aged 12 and over had had their second jab, with nearly half (47 per cent) fully vaccinated after receiving their booster.
But that still leaves hundreds of thousands without even a single dose of AstraZeneca or Moderna. I have no truck with the anti-vaxxers, the people who claim that the vaccines are a ploy by big pharma to make billions, or a ruse by Bill Gates to get inside our brains. Their daft conspiracy theories would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous.
Vaccine hesitancy is a different matter, however. Some folk have genuine phobias. Trypanophobia is the extreme fear of hypodermic needles and a recent Oxford University survey suggests that ten per cent of vaccine hesitancy is due to this condition.
Research across the UK shows that ethnic minority communities have “stronger negative attitudes” to vaccination and many pregnant women are reluctant to get jabbed, fearful of the impact on their unborn child.
Income has an impact too. A survey by the Office for National Statistics shows that people living in the most deprived areas of England were more likely to report vaccine hesitancy (eight per cent) than their peers in more affluent areas (two per cent).
And worryingly, only around half of Scotland’s social care staff, the people on the health frontline, have received their booster, prompting a plea by the Health Secretary to get it done “as soon as possible”.
“It is crucial, especially for those working with some of our most vulnerable citizens, that you get your booster if you have not already done so,” Humza Yousaf said earlier this week. “Getting vaccinated is vital in protecting you, those you care for, and your friends and family.”
The Scottish government has so far resisted making vaccines mandatory for health and social care staff, but there has been no such hesitancy from politicians in Westminster. They have just voted to make vaccines mandatory for all patient-facing health and social care staff. Care home staff in England are already required to be fully vaccinated.
The new rule doesn’t come into force until April next year, by which time hopefully Omicron will have lost much of its potency, but we cannot rule out another variant emerging. Even before Omicron popped up in South Africa, government advisers were warning it will take at least another five years for Covid-19 to “settle to a predictable endemic state”.
England is not the only country to introduce mandatory vaccines for health staff. Malawi has just decided to go down this route. Germany has introduced compulsory jabs for healthcare workers and is considering extending it to the whole population.
And in America, the land of the free, all companies employing more than 100 people must ensure their staff are fully vaccinated or have weekly Covid tests. A frustrated President Joe Biden told unvaccinated Americans: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us. So please, do the right thing.”
Mandatory vaccines are nothing new. The Compulsory Vaccination Act of 1853 required babies be vaccinated against smallpox, and travellers to many African countries require a yellow fever jab for entry.
I empathise with social care staff who cannot find the time between long, poorly paid shifts to get their booster, but the only way out of this disaster is through herd immunity brought about by vaccination.
Compulsory vaccines are not something to be introduced lightly – but on balance our government has a duty to put the health of the nation first.
Instead of organising volunteer shifts at their local vaccination clinic, the First Minister and her Health Secretary should have been working with trade unions and others on an urgent plan to make vaccines mandatory for health and social care staff.
Parliament still has a few days left before Christmas to introduce emergency regulations – Westminster has provided the blueprint. To quote the First Minister on Thursday, “Right now, and yet again, the most important thing to do is get vaccines into people’s arms as quickly as possible.” And social care staff should be first in the queue.