The surge of the Omicron variant has triggered a new race to rollout booster vaccines – but there remains a risk that people experiencing homelessness will be left behind.
In response to the fast-spreading variant, Boris Johnson announced everyone over the age of 18 would be offered a booster jab from December 13.
But many people experiencing homelessness and on the fringes of society struggle to access health services and do not have access to a GP.
This can present difficulties when it comes to getting a jab and is one of the reasons why the Westminster government has pledged £28m to help local authorities and frontline charities reach people on the street.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Why are people experiencing homelessness thought to be more vulnerable to Covid-19?
People without a permanent home are at even greater risk of catching the virus, with nowhere to isolate away from others. Even going indoors is not a guarantee of safety – the hostels and communal shelters that have been the bedrock of emergency homelessness response have had to be adapted to prevent transmission of the virus.
Add to the mix the fact that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to have underlying health conditions and there is a strong argument for prioritising them for Covid-19 vaccination. On average, people experiencing homelessness die at almost half the age of the rest of the population – 46 for men and 43 for women.
Getting to a GP also poses a problem as many rough sleepers face barriers to accessing healthcare, such as having no registered address, identification or contact with services.
There is a greater risk of misinformation about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines on the street, too.
These factors have contributed to the uptake of vaccinations being lower among people experiencing homelessness than the general population.
As Omicron started to spread through the UK, Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “With Covid cases rapidly rising in recent weeks, this is worrying for everyone but even more so for people on the streets.
“Through our frontline services we know that vaccination rates amongst people experiencing homelessness are particularly low. This could prove fatal for many when also coupled with other health issues and the physical impact of spending night and day on the streets in the freezing cold.”
What is the current plan for people experiencing homelessness to receive the vaccine?
The UK government has announced a £28million funding boost for local authorities to protect rough sleepers and increase uptake of Covid-19 vaccines in response to the Omicron variant.
Eddie Hughes, minister for rough sleeping said: “In the wake of a surge in Covid-19 cases and a new variant, we have an even greater responsibility to protect vulnerable people.
“I’m very pleased to announce this funding today, to make sure as many people as possible are vaccinated and that councils can protect people sleeping rough and put a roof over their heads.”
The move is in contrast to earlier in the pandemic when people experiencing homelessness were not initially among the priority groups eligible for a jab.
Eligibility changed in early March when the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation altered course from the age-based approach adopted during the vaccine rollout so far.
JCVI’s Covid-19 chair Professor Wei Shen Lim wrote to Matt Hancock on March 11 to give the then-Health Secretary the go ahead to offer vaccinations to people without a secure home in England.
Professor Lim said: “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 “unique opportunity” presented itself thanks to the Everyone In scheme, which has seen 37,000 rough sleepers and vulnerable protected from the virus in hotels and other emergency accommodation during the pandemic.
Have people experiencing homelessness received the vaccine?
Before the announcement of priority access, homelessness charities and campaigners had been urging the UK government to take national leadership on the issue while local authorities and homelessness healthcare partnerships acted.
Oldham councillor Dr Zahid Chauhan was behind what he dubbed the “world’s first” homeless Covid-19 vaccinations in January. The NHS doctor has since become a campaigner on the issue and penned an open letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and urged him to call on all local authorities to press on with vaccinations.
Dr Chauhan wrote: “We argue that implementing a holistic programme to vaccinate and support people experiencing homelessness, is an urgent public health duty for all local authorities to uphold.”
Many homelessness charities and grassroots groups went on to roll out vaccines throughout the rollout of the first two jabs and that will continue with the booster jab according to Homeless Link CEO Rick Henderson.
“Our members developed innovative ways of getting the vaccinations to people earlier this year and encouraging uptake,” said Henderson. “This included offering close aftercare support and making sure the vaccines are delivered in a familiar surroundings.
“Homeless Link and our members are already working with local authorities across the country to co-ordinate these efforts. And we will be doing everything we can in the days and weeks ahead to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
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