January 12, 2022 - 3:43pm

Steve James is a critical care consultant at King’s College Hospital in London. When Health Secretary Sajid Javid visited last Friday, he asked the NHS staff about what they thought of the forthcoming mandates that will make Covid vaccination a condition of deployment for NHS staff. Dr James spoke out, saying why he was against the mandate and why he hadn’t taken the vaccine himself.

It made headlines across the UK media, in particular coming from a Cambridge-educated NHS frontline doctor. Dr James came in to the UnHerd studio to explain his position in more detail to Freddie Sayers.

While he does not think of himself as ‘anti-vax’ (he dislikes the label), he argues that there’s nothing wrong with individuals preferring not to take vaccines if they so choose. Nevertheless, he accepts that vaccines have had an important effect on Covid hospitalisation rates. “Undoubtedly the vaccines have made a big difference,” he says.

But he objects to the simplistic messaging around vaccination, saying that because Covid is so much more dangerous to older people and vulnerable groups, the insistence on universal vaccination (including making examples of people who refuse) is inappropriate.

Dr James has had Covid (he doesn’t know when, but tests positive for antibodies). But he admits he hadn’t taken the vaccine even for the period of months before he tested for antibodies, because he preferred to wait a period to fully understand the extent of any side effects.

He has also personally witnessed some potential Covid vaccine side effects, which made him more alive to the potential risks:

From the risk side of things, the risk is very small of a serious event. But I have got a friend whose family member is young, and had a myocarditis, a colleague at work who had a pericarditis, we’ve seen three relatively young, healthy people coming to King’s College Hospital post vaccination, who’ve died. So that’s not zero, although the chances are very small. So when you work in a hospital, and you see some of those patients, you’re seeing a very select group, but they’re on your radar.
- Steve James, UnHerd

What made him speak out was the sense that the debate was being stifled, even among NHS workers:

What got me going the most was knowing that the voices of colleagues are not being heard… For the last month or two colleagues have been winking and nudging each other and having meetings outside the hospital grounds and making small social media groups to support each other. Because they’re worried about losing their jobs… If there are all these people around, and we’re talking about 10% of the NHS, who are being threatened with the loss of their livelihood, come on, I mean, their voices should be heard. God, they’ve been trying to speak.
- Steve James, UnHerd

He’s had a mixture of positive and negative reactions within the hospital since he spoke out, but referred to mounting questions among NHS workers:

The population knows that we were clapped a year and a half ago, and they now know, we’re being sacked. So who wouldn’t ask questions about that transformation? How does this process “protect the NHS”? How do you really protect the NHS by losing a large chunk of your staff?
- Steve James, UnHerd

He hopes that the policy will change before the April deadline, but is prepared to lose his job rather than be vaccinated. “If push comes to shove, I’m not going to have the vaccine, no… I’ll lose my job.” He says he would move to another country where the rules are different.

Dr James feels that he would not be able to be a good doctor if his integrity had been compromised by taking a medication that he didn’t want. He said that better information about both the risks and rewards of taking the vaccine should be put out by the Government in a way that people can tailor to their own risk profile.

So does he think the policy will change, and will he still be working in the NHS come April?

I’m very hopeful person. I do see the possibility for change — I do see Omicron giving the possibility for a delay and a review. I do see the possibility for trusts to contact the government and say we’re worried about losing our staff, and that seems to be a bigger problem than whether they’re vaccinated or not, because we were not really worried about transmission from staff to patients.
- Steve James, UnHerd