Housing

Covid-19 vaccine: Westminster Government will offer homeless priority access

The UK Government has followed Wales in offering vaccines to rough sleepers and homeless people as part of priority group six

homelessness and Rough sleeping Alexander Baxevanis

The number of people deemed to be 'living on the streets' in London is now the highest since 2019. Image credit: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

The UK Government will follow Wales in offering people experiencing homelessness priority access to a Covid-19 vaccine, ministers have announced.

In a letter to the JCVI’s Covid-19 chair Professor Wei Shen Lim, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that all “local teams will be given flexibility to vaccinate all homeless people and rough sleepers alongside cohort 6”.

The sixth priority group includes people aged between 16 and 65 who are in an at-risk group and deemed to be at a higher risk of Covid-19 due to clinical vulnerabilities including heart problems, diabetes and dementia.

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Professor Lim had earlier written to Hancock stating that the Everyone In scheme presents a “unique opportunity” to vaccinate homeless people in England.

A total of 37,000 people have been protected from the virus through the scheme which has seen rough sleepers and vulnerable people brought back into hotels and other emergency accommodation during the latest national lockdown.

Professor Lim wrote: “Due to current restrictions, many thousands of people who experience rough sleeping have been accommodated in emergency accommodation. This provides a unique opportunity to in-reach vaccination to a population that is otherwise often unable to access basic healthcare.”

The change in policy has been hailed by Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes, who is among the campaigners who have called for priority access to the vaccine to be given to homeless people in recent weeks.

He said: “We welcome the Secretary of State’s acceptance and commitment to this advice from JCVI. As it makes clear, local areas can prioritise people who are homeless for vaccination and must make appropriate considerations in their vaccine rollout plans.

“The UK Government must now ensure that, working with homelessness services, all local areas have the resources they need to make this happen. 

“But make no mistake, the vaccine will not make homelessness safe. Whether it is living on the streets, or in cars and sheds, or constantly moving between friends’ sofas, homelessness is extremely damaging to both your physical and mental health. We desperately need a plan to ensure everyone has a safe and secure home.”

Local authorities will be able to “exercise operational judgement and consider universal offer of the vaccine to people experiencing homelessness”, according to the latest JCVI advice.

Some councils have already taken the decision to offer vaccinations to people without a secure home, recognising that the group are at greater risk of suffering from underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Oldham Council was the first to act in January when councillor Dr Zahid Chauhan convinced the local authority to carry out the “world’s first” vaccinations for homeless people.

The NHS doctor has since started the Homelessness Vaccination Campaign and has written to Hancock in recent weeks calling for national leadership on the issue to ensure all local authorities follow Oldham’s lead.

Dr Chauhan told The Big Issue: “This is great news. It was worth doing everything we have done in the last couple of months to speak up for homeless people.

“Sometimes history judges you for your actions and I am thankful to everyone who has supported us on our campaign.

“But the journey does not end here, it is just the start. We have to ensure every homeless person gets vaccinated and it is now the time for local bodies to ensure that they deliver vaccinations quickly to those who need them.

“They should also take this opportunity to sign people up to local health services.”

Oldham was not the only local authority to pre-empt the JCVI’s guidance. Rough sleepers in Redbridge and Liverpool soon followed suit while homeless people in Brighton, Westminster and Bournemouth have also received jabs in recent weeks among other areas of the country.

The UK Government’s move comes a day after the Welsh Government announced it would be offering people experiencing homelessness the vaccine in the same priority group.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said the greater health risks faced by those experiencing homelessness, a lower likelihood of being registered with a GP and the need to ensure “no one will be left behind” was behind the move.

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