Care providers have been accused of using “strong-arm tactics” to ensure their staff have COVID-19 vaccinations.
Leading union UNISON has written to Care Minister Helen Whately calling for government intervention.
The move comes after Barchester Healthcare revealed it will not hire workers who refuse the vaccine and will encourage uptake by linking vaccination to bonuses, promotions and enhanced sick pay. Other operators are believed to be considering a similar stance.
UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The vaccination programme is the way out of this health crisis. The more care workers who get a jab, the safer the sector will be.
“But care employers who put punitive measures in place for staff, or make it a condition of work, are undermining trust and confidence in the vaccine. They are also at odds with the sensible approach being taken by most employers and the NHS.
“Companies would do better to concentrate on informing staff about the benefits of the vaccination, rather than intimidating them. Ministers should be firm with Barchester that its approach is wrong and must be reversed.”
A Barchester spokesperson said: “It is vital that we do all we can to keep our vulnerable residents and patients as safe and protected from COVID-19 as possible. Legal opinion is that it is unlawful to discriminate unless there is an overriding consideration or objective justification, such as the need to protect the lives of vulnerable residents.
“Our new policy means we will not hire new staff if they have refused to have the vaccine on non-medical grounds and this is a key point. A care home is a closed environment and we operate a ‘whole home approach’ to the care that we give, therefore all of our staff interact constantly with our residents and patients.
“A care home is the home of the resident, not just a workplace and therefore we deem it important that they have as safe a place to live as possible. Working in care means we must do everything possible to protect our residents, patients and staff and being vaccinated is a part of this. We have all seen the terrible impact that this pandemic has brought on people who are older and vulnerable and we feel it is our duty to do everything in our power to protect our residents and staff.”
Barchester said 88% of its residents had so far been vaccinated with 74% of staff having had at least their first dose.
A Government spokesperson said: “Vaccines offer the best form of protection against the virus and the vaccine is not compulsory. The UK operates a system of informed consent for vaccinations and demand has been extremely high with more than 11 million people vaccinated so far.
“However, it is strongly recommended that all frontline social care workers who can receive a vaccine choose to take it. Getting vaccinated will help protect people from becoming seriously ill from COVID, so they can continue to be there for their family, friends and the people they care for.
“Employers must ensure that work contracts are not used to unfairly discriminate against individuals.”