Last reviewed 13 April 2021

On 1 April the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced that access to the National Booking Service, which has become the most direct route to Covid-19 vaccines for care staff, will be restricted.

The National Booking Service is accessed by thousands of care staff every day on a self-referral basis, and experts from across health and social care have warned that the closure of this booking service to non-NHS health and social care staff risks reducing vaccination rates among priority groups.

It is understood that the decision was made in light of supply shortages for the vaccine.

Care home staff are Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) priority 1, and all other care staff are JCVI priority 2. All other priority groups 3 to 9 appear to remain eligible to use the service.

Provided by NHS Digital, the service was opened to all frontline health and social care staff in February 2021 amid concerns around low vaccine uptake, particularly among care staff. NHS Digital data as at 1 April showed 22.2% of older adult care home staff still had not received their first dose. This was, however, an improvement on one-third in February.

Groups including the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Care England said the DHSC announced the restrictions to the National Booking Service without warning. The 23 bodies questioned scrapping a system that had “significantly improved access to vaccinations” for staff working in non-NHS services such as care homes, domiciliary care services and special schools, in a letter addressed to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

They warned that others who have not been vaccinated but are no longer eligible for the booking system include new starters at work, students on their first placement, those who have recovered from illnesses that meant they could not be vaccinated and those who have overcome vaccine hesitancy.

The letter concluded: “We urge you to reintroduce access to the National Booking System for non-NHS health and care staff, and students, as soon as is practical.”

The National Care Forum (NCF) complained, in a separate statement, that care home staff cannot access the system while “all other priority groups 3 to 9 appear to remain eligible to use the service”. It said this move was “made immediately prior to the four-day bank holiday, with no notice”.

NCF CEO Vic Rayner called it “an unfathomable decision”, as NCF research has repeatedly found that access to the vaccine is one of the main barriers for staff take up. She said: “With that knowledge under your belt, the decision to remove opportunities for access must swiftly and decisively be reversed.”