According to a recent BBC article (O'Connor and Jackson, 2021), UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is advocating for the administering of the COVID-19 vaccine to be made compulsory for all healthcare and frontline staff, given the severe rise in SARS-CoV-2 cases in the UK over the last month. Furthermore, the penalty for not getting both COVID-19 jabs – within a proposed time frame of 16 weeks – poses the risk of these healthcare workers losing their jobs or potentially being removed from the frontline altogether.
The major controversy surrounding this is the fact that healthcare workers are now losing their freedom of choice; a huge ethical and, possibly, legal impediment on their rights. In specific relation to midwives, this is in direct contravention of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (2021) which states: ‘The Code and our standards make clear that professionals have a responsibility to maintain their own level of health. And that they should take all reasonable personal precautions to avoid potential health risks to colleagues and people receiving care. All nurses, midwives and nursing associates, whether they decide to be vaccinated or not, need to be confident that measures are in place where they work to manage any risk of transmission, and they need to take appropriate steps themselves to reduce risks and prioritise the safety of people in their care.’
The question about the legality of such legislation will depend on whether the relevant human rights laws are taken into consideration. According to the BMJ (2021), ‘mandatory vaccination interferes with the right to private life protected by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, so the relevant authorities will need to show that the interference is justified in its pursuit of a legitimate aim and its proportionality’. The government will also need to demonstrate how they have arrived at the decision and whether they have adequately ‘taken into account the public sector equality duty and that mandatory vaccination policies comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010’ (BMJ, 2021).
That being said, it is critical for the government to tread carefully. Although the vaccination programme is being rolled out in the best interest of the general population, and with this specific legislation, to ensure the most vulnerable are not exposed to the virus, this must be done not at the expense of individual rights and freedom of choice, particularly pertaining to one's own body. It is crucial that a culture of fear of perhaps losing one's job because of not choosing to get vaccinated is not created. After all, our midwives and other healthcare staff are under enough pressure as it is on the frontline, and have been consistent in their commitment to keeping the NHS afloat since the start of the pandemic. Let's always remember to be mindful of these individuals when it comes to ethical decisions such as these.