James remains insistent that pushing ahead with the policy in the face of a mass exodus is a blinkered reaction to a climate of fear. “We’ve been through cycles of fear through these lockdowns,” he says. “And I think that’s affected the psyche of people.”
When he leaves King’s, James hopes to remain a clinician and has already made inquiries about working in Ireland. He is also considering jobs in Wales and Scotland where the devolved governments have so far resisted vaccine mandates. Others among James’s colleagues who will be forced to leave the hospital in April have less of an idea about future careers.
Intensive care consultant Milena Chee has tested positive for Covid antibodies, meaning at some point she contracted the virus. She does not know exactly when, but having worked on the frontline since the first days of the pandemic, “when, over a weekend, one patient turned into 30”, she is not surprised.
Chee, who declines to give her age but has been working at King’s since 2013, and within the NHS since 2009, says she has seen “hundreds” of patients succumb to the virus and stresses Covid is an “awful disease”. At the same time, she acknowledges the higher proportion of unvaccinated patients being hospitalised – a figure which Javid claimed was around 70 per cent on the King’s Hospital Covid wards during his visit.
She also disputes any health fears over the vaccine. “I want to underline that the vaccine is safe, and certainly it is much better to be vaccinated,” she says. “What I’m against is the vaccination status to be tied to employment rights. I’m against the language of hatred, which is rampant. We are supposed to be such a tolerant society, but all of a sudden have become the complete opposite.”
As the sole breadwinner in her family, with her partner a stay-at-home husband looking after their 11-year-old son, she admits leaving the job she loves comes at a high personal price.
“I do not have a job lined up after April,” she says. “This is a source of enormous anxiety for me and my family. Not only will I lose a job I absolutely adore and one I’m very good at, but I’m not sure how I will move forward at the moment.”
Elsewhere in the NHS, colleagues have reportedly started wearing purple ribbons on their uniforms to demonstrate their opposition to the policy of mandatory vaccinations.
When former Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced in March 2021 that care home workers would be mandated to have Covid vaccinations (a policy that came into force in November), he stressed there was a “clear precedent” for the ruling as NHS staff who come into contact with the blood of patients are already required to have a vaccination for Hepatitis B. While this policy is enforced by NHS trusts across England, it is not a legal ruling.
Many of those now refusing to have a Covid jab have previously had their Hepatitis B vaccination and seasonal flu jabs and say the two are not comparable as the latter are not enshrined in law.
Among them is Dr Simon Fox, a 41-year-old consultant in infectious diseases currently working across NHS trusts in the South East, who has spent 15 years in the NHS.
He contracted the virus working on Covid wards in the early days of the pandemic and, though he was “bad for a week”, avoided being hospitalised. He has also cared for colleagues left “extremely ill” with the virus. “I haven’t lost any colleagues, but I know of people who have succumbed,” he says.
He stresses it is not the vaccine he is opposing (he advised his elderly parents to have Covid jabs), but the mandate. Indeed, he argues far from persuading reluctant staff to have their jabs, the policy will in fact fuel anti-vaxxer sentiment.
“What they have done by being so coercive on vaccines and ramming it down people’s throats is making people extremely sceptical and suspicious,” he says. “It is very hard to undo that.”