Frontline NHS workers have described the Covid-19 vaccine rollout amongst staff as a “shambles” as they struggle to access the jab.
With echoes of the PPE crisis that defined the start of the pandemic’s devastating impact in March, doctors and nurses have accused the government of compromising patient safety as a result of “failing to protect the workforce”.
Despite working face-to-face on a daily basis with Covid patients, as well as with others who could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, healthcare workers say they have been left in the dark about how to get the vaccine.
In some cases, those most at risk have been offered it on a first-come, first-served basis, or been forced to call their own GP surgeries repeatedly.
One nurse working in a north London hospital described the rollout as a “shambles” and described how after receiving “zero communication” staff had been sent an email telling them a limited number of people who replied could be booked in to receive the vaccine at a different hospital on a first-come first-served basis.
She said staff had received no further communication after this email, instead receiving an email from NHS London “asking us all to pick up shifts and work harder please”.
The nurse said: “We are all desperate for the vaccine but we’re not being communicated with and the organisation of who should get it first – in my opinion all frontline staff and ITU [intensive care] then work down the list – has been really poor and to be honest a shambles.
“In terms of how staff are feeling at the moment, morale is pretty much rock bottom.”
She added that staff were leaving the NHS, and specifically A&E departments and intensive care units, “in their droves”, with hospitals “bursting at the seams” and “nowhere to put patients”.
She said: “We’ve had to treat sick patients on the back of ambulances as we have nowhere to put them in the hospital.
“We are all also having to ration oxygen and make tough choices when it comes to the elderly and patients with multiple co-morbidities which is heartbreaking for all involved.”
The nurse also reported staff feeling under-appreciated by management, even after a particularly gruelling year.
She added: “The management teams aren’t showing much appreciation of staff – previous years have seen incentives over Christmas like a small bonus if you work more but nothing this year.
“The Christmas presents for the nurses [...] was a sandwich bag with a lollipop, a couple of biscuits and a Werther’s Original inside. That was the thanks for everything they’ve been through this year. All this means morale couldn’t really get any lower.
“I think both hospitals and the government should show more appreciation for the hell that staff are continuing to go through and have been going through for almost a year now.
“Just saying thank you is not enough. Getting vaccines to the right people would be a good place to start.”
London GP Dr Riz Khalid, who lives just outside the capital, said he had been forced to call his own home surgery to get the vaccine despite coming into close contact with patients every day – even going into their homes with zero space for social distancing.
He said: “I’m having to pester my own GP surgery for the vaccine. I know they’re very busy and I really don’t want to – as a GP myself I know what it’s like – but in my area it’s all being run through our own GP surgeries.
“It’s not being done on a national scale, though it really should be. My surgery has had to say: ‘We’ll get around to you when we can.’”
After already being infected with the virus in March, Khalid spoke of his fears that he could once again contract the virus and pass it onto his family including his wife, who suffers from underlying health conditions.
“I’m a member of the BAME community, being ethnically from Pakistan originally – I’m at higher risk. We know from statistics that increases the risk of me becoming seriously ill, and I’m seeing patients on the front line day-to-day who could be asymptomatic carriers of Covid.
Once again, NHS workers aren’t being protected and their lives are at risk as they try to care for other people.
“I really want to be there for my patients and my colleagues and have that vaccination, which would allow me to be safe myself and provide that service. If I can’t get a vaccine I’m continually worried that I’ll get the virus again.”
With Covid cases now spiking at 50,000 per day for two continuous days and queues of ambulances pictures lining up outside hospitals across the country, NHS workers are facing a significant staffing crisis.
Thousands of staff members have been forced to self-isolate since the start of the pandemic, an issue that isn’t going away any time soon.
Another doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, told HuffPost UK that the government’s failure to target frontline healthcare workers first was a “spectacularly short-sighted decision”, describing the move as “a grievous error”.
She added: “Traditionally, the NHS has always struggled over ‘winter pressures’ with increased demand and decreased workforce through illness. Covid-19 is no different. Patient safety is being compromised by failing to protect the workforce.
“It is very difficult to care for patients if you are prone and on a ventilator. The knock-on effects will not be limited to the care of those with Covid and other acute illnesses, but also in delayed cancer diagnoses, poor control of chronic illnesses leading to preventable admissions and sequelae [secondary conditions developing from other illnesses and injuries], and a myriad of health issues that it will take years to fully address.”
Dr Zainab Najim, a GP trainee in Norfolk, and a GP adviser for the Doctor’s Association UK (DAUK), said: “My personal experience would be that a nearby trust have patchily offered vaccines out to hospital staff.
“GP staff haven’t been told at all what’s going on. We may or may not be being sent slots in the new year.”
Dr Ellen Welch, an out-of-hours GP in Cumbria and another GP adviser for the DAUK, said: “At present there is no central government guidance on this issue and the vaccination of staff has been carried out sporadically, often on an ad hoc basis, without appropriate prioritisation.
“Frontline staff are the greatest asset the NHS has and we should ensure we are protecting them. The impact of staff sickness is already taking its toll across the country. We can prevent further staff shortages by vaccinating our front line.”
But the news of the Oxford vaccine approval has brought hope to doctors, she added.
Many staff have been left in a position where they are only able to access vaccines that are left over from the initial phase of the rollout to the over-80s, with some workers telling HuffPost UK that vaccination had become a matter of “luck” – or even just knowing a colleague who was involved in administering vaccines and could squeeze them in if a patient failed to show for an appointment.
HuffPost UK has seen a letter from one NHS trust, University Hospitals of Derby and Burton (UHDB), to staff, which states: “The government’s stated priority is that the trust should use 75% of its vaccine allocation for over 80s and a further 20% for care home staff.
“This leaves 5% (around 48 doses of vaccine from each allocation) for NHS staff and this includes other local NHS organisations as well as UHDB’s employees.”
Dr Julia Patterson, the founder and chief executive of campaign group EveryDoctor, said: “Healthcare workers need to be protected, not only to protect themselves but also to protect others they could infect with Covid-19.
“As the Covid cases soar and places are increasingly put into lockdown measures, the people who are still going to be out in the community are the frontline healthcare workers. It’s so important that they are prioritised.
“During the first wave there was inadequate protection from a PPE perspective, which led to the deaths of a lot of people. This time around, once again, NHS workers aren’t being protected and their lives are at risk as they try to care for other people.”
More than 640 NHS workers have died of Covid-19, many of them support staff such as porters and healthcare assistants, who struggled to access PPE at the start of the pandemic.
Patterson said: “It is the people who weren’t first in line for PPE who were predominantly dying, because they weren’t receiving any protection.
“Obviously doctors and nurses are really important but we want to make it crystal clear – all frontline healthcare staff need this vaccine as soon as possible.”
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chair for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said: “The JCVI’s advice on Covid-19 vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible.
“As the single greatest risk of death from Covid-19 is older age, prioritisation is primarily based on age.
“It is estimated that vaccinating everyone in the priority groups would prevent around 99% of deaths from Covid-19.”
HuffPost UK has contacted the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) for comment.