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Only 60 per cent of nurses at Belfast trust vaccinated against Covid by summer

Figures obtained by The Irish News show that 60 per cent of nurses at the Belfast trust were fully vaccinated by June 2021
Seanín Graham

As few as 60 per cent of nurses in Northern Ireland's biggest health trust were vaccinated against Covid by late June, The Irish News has learned.

Huge variation between healthcare professionals getting jabbed at the Belfast trust has also been revealed, which one leading medic has described as "extremely worrying".

Take-up among doctors was highest - 94 per cent received their first dose - while 80 per cent of administration staff were fully vaccinated through the trust site.

Belfast Trust says the figures are incomplete because some medical staff may have been vaccinated elsewhere, although it can't provide any numbers.

Figures disclosed in a Freedom of Information (FoI) response give a breakdown of vaccine uptake across professional groups since last December - when frontline NHS workers were among the first group to be offered the Pfizer jab on the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) site - and June 26, when the RVH vaccination centre no longer jabbed "staff only" and opened its doors to the public.

Overall, 73 per cent of trust staff - equating to 15,963 workers - received their first jab while 70 per cent had both doses by late June. At that point in the pandemic, 80 per cent of the north's population had received their first jab.

The emergence of the more contagious Delta variant began in June when half of the north's Covid cases were linked to the new strain.

Of the eight professional groups (which also included social workers, estates workers and Allied Health Professionals such as radiographers and speech therapists) uptake was lowest among the nursing and midwifery profession, with 62 per cent having their first jab and 60 per cent fully vaccinated.

In its FoI response, the Belfast trust states the figures do not include bank staff or those who received their jab at other sites "like SSE arena, centres close to their homes, GP surgeries or at local pharmacies".

"It does not include those staff who attended for vaccination after 24/06/21. Therefore, the actual number of staff vaccinated is higher than the figures quoted," they state.

But public health expert Professor Gabriel Scally expressed shock at frontline take-up and said that Belfast trust "should know" the total number of employees jabbed, as it has a duty of care to staff and patients.

"It really is a professional duty of those treating sick people that they don’t cause them damage," Professor Scally said.

"Spreading Covid-19 is potentially fatal and therefore there is really a very strong professional duty on healthcare staff to be fully vaccinated in order to protect their patients.

Professor Scally also highlighted the "shockingly wide" differences in take-up rates across staff groups and said he supported mandatory vaccination of the frontline - a move currently being considered in England.

"The variation in the uptake of vaccine between the Belfast trust's professional groups is extremely worrying," he added.

"Having said that, the trust clearly doesn’t believe these figures are accurate because of bank staff/temporary staff. The idea that staff could have availed of this elsewhere applies to all the other groups – there’s no reason why nurses/midwives should be different in that respect. The only thing would be the bank nurses.

"But it's up to the trust. The trust should know exactly what proportion of professionals working in their hospitals are vaccinated. On the evidence that they’ve presented, it’s really not good enough."

He added: "I support mandatory vaccination for the frontline. It's the only way to keep patients and staff safe because staff are in a vulnerable position as well if they’re dealing with Covid patients and others in their family be exposed as a result."

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) trade union last night said it was opposed to mandatory vaccination for its members but encouraged "all nursing staff" to get jabbed.

RCN Northern Ireland Acting Director Rita Devlin said: "We believe that making the vaccine easily available is the best way to increase uptake. It is inherent within the Nursing and Midwifery Council code that nursing staff take measures to protect their patients and the public against serious illness as a professional responsibility.

"Health and care staff must be supported to make an informed choice about taking the vaccine."

When asked to comment on uptake concerns, the Department of Health said all healthcare workers "have a personal and professional duty to act to protect those to whom they are providing care and should act now to make arrangements to get vaccinated".

A spokesman added: "The Department notes that these are incomplete figures and will not have captured the full details of staff vaccination.

"We would make the same appeal to staff who are not yet vaccinated as we do to the general public – please do not delay getting your jab any longer.

"The benefits of vaccination are very clear, not least in weakening the link between Covid infection and hospitalisation. Getting our Covid vaccine is the single most important thing each of us can do to help our health service get through this winter."

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