More than a fifth of NHS healthcare workers in England had still not received their first dose of Covid vaccine a week ago, the Observer can reveal, as medics urged their colleagues to take one as soon as possible.

The government has claimed that all healthcare workers have been offered a jab, but new figures released by NHS England show that only 77% of all its 1.4 million healthcare staff had received the vaccine by 20 February. However, that figure is likely to have increased further over the past week. The figure is also likely to be higher for those working directly with Covid patients, but no direct data is currently available.

In a powerful message to members, Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, urged all doctors to take up the vaccine as he warned of potential gaps in coverage. “After the most challenging year the majority will have ever experienced, when they have seen countless patients – and in many cases, friends and colleagues – suffering and dying with Covid-19, doctors as much as anyone want the vaccine programme to be a success, and want to protect themselves and patients by getting vaccinated,” he said. “Thousands of healthcare workers around the world have already died during the pandemic, and we urge all of our members and their wider colleagues to accept a vaccine when offered, unless they have a valid medical reason not to do so.

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“Thankfully, according to the BMA’s recent surveys, take-up has been incredibly high among doctors, with 96% telling us they have now received at least one dose. However, we are aware that other research suggests gaps in coverage among healthcare workers, especially those from some ethnic minority backgrounds. This is of course particularly concerning, given the devastating and disproportionate impact Covid-19 has had on ethnic minority healthcare workers – with almost nine in 10 doctors who have died from Covid-19 being from BAME communities.”

While 23% of healthcare staff are recorded as still requiring a first vaccine dose, the new official figures will ease concerns over the level of vaccination among NHS staff raised by a recent study. The research, covering staff at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust between December and the start of February, found 12,278 people from a total of 19,044 had been given a jab since it was offered. Uptake was highest among those in administrative and executive roles, while doctors had the lowest rate of vaccination at 57%. The study also noted a lower take-up among staff under 30. They made up 18.7% of the vaccinated group and 31.7% in the non-vaccinated group.

It found 70.9% of white staff had been vaccinated, compared with 58.5% of South Asian staff and 36.8% of black staff. While the reasons for the disparity remain unclear, health figures have suggested that the unpredictable and changeable hours of junior doctors and nursing staff may well be one of the main reasons for the disparity, making it harder for them to make vaccine appointments.


AstraZeneca vaccine

A study of staff at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust found 70.9% of white staff had been vaccinated, compared with 58.5% of South Asian staff and 36.8% of black staff. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Nagpaul said it would be wrong to draw “unfair conclusions” about why vaccine take-up appears to be lower among some groups. He urged employers to “work to understand and address the underlying reasons behind any gaps in vaccine coverage, making sure they are doing everything they can to reach all staff – including bank and locum doctors, who are likely to feel less included in workplace programmes”.

Senior figures, including England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have urged all health and social care workers to have the vaccine when it is offered. There have also been suggestions that doctors could face disciplinary action for refusing without good reason. Whitty recently told doctors and care workers that they had a “professional responsibility” to accept a vaccine. He spoke out after official data showed only 52% of staff in care homes for the elderly in London have been vaccinated. Ministers have suggested that a difficulty in making appointments is part of the problem.

The government is desperate to avoid making vaccines mandatory for any group, fearing that it could exacerbate the problem among those already resistant to the idea. However, some care groups are looking at making vaccine take-up a condition of employment and there are no plans to prevent them from doing so.

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