David Davis claimed mandating jabs for healthcare workers would be “illegal” and in breach of international law.
But Downing Street pointed out that some NHS staff are already required to get the hepatitis B vaccine, providing a “clear precedent” for mandatory Covid vaccines.
The clash came as health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the government was considering legally requiring care home workers in England to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
Hancock insisted “no final decision” had been made amid a review into so-called vaccine passports, but confirmed that ministers were looking at jabs being made compulsory for care workers in England.
The plans have emerged amid concerns of low uptake from staff in care homes looking after those who are among the most vulnerable of death the disease, with around 24% of care workers remaining unvaccinated.
However, Davis’s comments highlighted the potential for the proposals to run into strong opposition from civil liberties Tories, who are already preparing to vote against the extension of Covid restrictions on Thursday.
It came after the Telegraph reported leaked details of a paper submitted to the “Covid O” sub-committee of Cabinet which said that prime minister Boris Johnson and Hancock had agreed to the proposal.
Hancock told LBC: “Because people who are looking after elderly residents in care homes, who we know to be the most vulnerable to Covid, they have a duty of care not to pass on the disease and it is a reasonable question.”
He said “many” care homes had asked for this to happen, adding: “There’s a legal change that’s required and, as you can see, I’m open to that, but no final decision has been taken.”
Davis, who is a staunch civil liberties campaigner, conceded there were “precedents” for mandatory vaccines, including hepatitis B vaccines.
But the former Brexit secretary suggested the comparison with hepatitis B vaccines was unfair, insisting these have been in use since the 1980s and have a long-term safety record.
Davis argued that the best way to protect care home residents was to ensure that they themselves are vaccinated and are therefore at far less risk of death or serious illness.
He told the Commons public administration committee (PACAC): “It’s illegal to require vaccination at the moment.
“We are bound ourselves by both UN and European international agreements to the use of medical treatment.
“Medical treatment as it stands must only be for the benefit of the person it’s administered to.
“Medical treatment must not be administered for, as it were, communal purposes – otherwise we’ll all be giving mandatory blood transfusions and so on.
“I give blood anyway, but you’d have requirements like that.
“So that’s against both international and national laws.
“The answer... is to solve the problem by the method which is legal and acceptable, which is to vaccinate the people who are at risk.
“Look, if I were running a care home, and I am very pro-vaccines, I would say to all my workers – I would like you to vaccinate in the interests of our clients.
“But I couldn’t force it, and I don’t foresee a way which we can force it.
“And if you tried to say it’s now a requirement of your job, I don’t think the courts would uphold it – apart from anything else because you are costing someone their job for a requirement which can’t be enforced in law.”
Responding, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “This is something that happens already, for example doctors are required to have the hepatitis B vaccine.
“So there is a clear precedent for this proposition, elderly people in care homes are the most vulnerable to this disease.
“And this is something that care homes have actually called for.”
It came as the Independent Care Group, which represents providers in York and North Yorkshire, said making the vaccine mandatory for care workers could put people off from joining the sector.
Chair Mike Padgham said it is vital care workers get vaccinated but it should be voluntary, adding: “I think rather than force it through legislation, the government has more work to do in terms of persuading everyone, not just care workers, about how important it is that the whole country has the vaccine so that we are all protected.”
Davis also cautioned the government against introducing so-called vaccine passports to allow immunised people to do certain activities, for example visiting a pub or attending a football match.
He said introducing Covid status certificates, which are currently being reviewed by the government, could be discriminatory against communities reluctant to take up the vaccine.
Davis told MPs: “The impact of this would be discriminatory. Under the law, it would be indirectly discriminatory and that is illegal.
“You may well find, it has been said, that Black and ethnic minority communities are less inclined to get vaccinated, well that would be indirect discrimination.”
Younger people were also less likely to have the jab and “some people have ethical or religious objections”, he said.
“There are a variety of good reasons for people not to take a vaccine. I’ve had a vaccine and I think most of the reasons are not ones I would subscribe to.
“But people have that freedom. What this proposal does is, in effect, coerce those people.”