COVID vaccine

THE NATIONAL Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) praised the work of fire and rescue service (FRS) staff in helping to administer vaccinations against COVID-19, with over 27,000 administered so far.

In a press release, the NFCC confirmed that ‘more than’ 27,000 vaccinations had been given to the public by FRS staff ‘following a drive to assist’ with the national effort, and it added that this figure equates to firefighters and FRS staff having administered approximately one in 600 immunisations of the 16.5m given so far. It ‘praised this incredible work’, noting that staff were undertaking vaccinations and other COVID-19 related tasks ‘alongside their usual emergency response duties’.

Around 70% or 35 of the UK’s FRSs are assisting with vaccinations, while fully trained FRS staff are ‘actively giving’ vaccinations, with others being trained to do so as well, and over 6,000 hours of support has been given so far. In total, 450 staff are vaccinating the public, with 193 active in the last week and some FRSs having support staff ‘dedicated to the role fulltime’.

Among the FRSs whose staff are providing vaccinations at the moment are Shropshire, Nottinghamshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Lancashire, Tyne and Wear and Merseyside, while more are ‘set to undertake this vital work’. NFCC chair Roy Wilsher commented: ‘To see the sheer number of vaccinations and support being given by [FRS] staff is amazing.

‘We have seen services working tirelessly to set up the sites, assisting with patient care and also administering the vaccines. This doesn’t take into account other work such as services helping deliver and carry out tests in areas where new COVID strains were discovered such as Surrey and Hertfordshire. Firefighters and other FRS staff continue to crew ambulances, deliver PPE and assist with getting items to vulnerable people, to name just a few activities.

‘Once again it is evident staff are ready, willing and able to assist where their help is needed. The selfless dedication and determination being shown is second to none, and I am in no doubt the public are proud of their fire and rescue services as they once again step up to play their part; all this whilst workplace absence is incredibly low.’

In more detail, Lancashire FRS is offering assistance at sites and has helped administer over 50,000 vaccinations, with 220 staff having volunteered to take part. Nottinghamshire FRS has administered over 10,000 vaccinations, while Shropshire FRS redeployed nearly 200 staff, including training 34 as vaccinators and proving mental health support to frontline workers; helping with on site coordination; providing medical assistance; and implementing traffic management.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight FRS has seen 60 staff trained to vaccinate the public, while 10 firefighters have been helping treat patients; Tyne and Wear FRS meanwhile has dedicated over 1,100 hours of support and 57 staff to the vaccination programme at Newcastle Racecourse and the Nightingale Hospital in Washington, including vaccinations; manging non clinical aspects; helping with decision making; moving patients; managing resources; and briefing volunteers.

Finally, over 150 staff from Merseyside FRS and West Midlands FRS have been ‘trained to assist’ and are carrying out administrative support as well as vaccinations. Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh stated: ‘Our [FRS] volunteers have made this extraordinary contribution in helping to administer the vaccine so many people, in turn saving many more. I want to thank them for their efforts.

‘Their time and commitment in assisting with the rollout of the vaccination has directly supported our NHS to save lives and protect their local communities. I know our [FRSs] will continue to step up and do all they can to protect the British public.’

The NFCC concluded by noting that since 25 January, over 15,000 lateral flow tests have been given to FRS staff – around 30% of the workforce. Earlier this month, it had announced that FRS staff were now part of the COVID-19 rapid testing programme, as ‘part of a drive to keep staff, their colleagues, families and the communities they serve, safe’.

In the early stages of lockdown, the NFCC, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU and the national employer confirmed additional activities to assist other key services had been agreed for FRS staff, including mask face fitting, delivering personal protective equipment (PPE), administering tests, and driving as well as training on driving ambulances.

Last April, a further agreement saw 300 London Fire Brigade (LFB) firefighters drive ambulances and assist paramedics in London’s pandemic response, after news that firefighters would aim to protect the vulnerable in society by avoiding hospitals and care homes, as part of an agreed ‘critical risk-based service’.

Prior to this, FRS staff had been confirmed to be undertaking antigen testing, driving non blue light ambulance transport and non COVID patients, and training others to drive ambulances. Also in April, it was revealed that over 4,000 FRS staff had volunteered to assist, while a further 10,000 were ‘on standby to assist as and when required’.

In May, the three bodies agreed firefighters could build protective face shields for frontline NHS staff and care staff, and transfer patients from and to Nightingale hospitals, alongside packaging and repackaging food supplies. Later that month, the NFCC confirmed FRSs would ‘work with local partners to support care homes’, and then confirmed that the agreements were ‘extended’.

The agreement was extended again in late July, and towards the end of last year extended again, with FRSs preparing for the ‘second wave’. FRSs had been asked to risk assess all activities, ‘including those that haven’t been requested by Local Resilience Forums’, with risk assessments for nationally agreed activities implanted locally, and the agreement able to be extended further.

Last December, the NFCC and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh discussed their ‘pride’ in the FRS response, before it was revealed FRSs were ‘ready to help’ with delivering vaccines and assisting the test and trace programme, as part of a new agreement. At the time, the FBU said this would see firefighters check that ‘potential higher risk premises are COVID-secure’, inspecting workplaces ‘where relevant authorities have raised concerns’ about COVID security.

Firefighters were required to wait three days and receive a negative COVID-19 test before returning to FRS premises ‘when returning from pandemic duties’, and the previous agreements had become ‘much longer term than originally envisaged’, so the new tasks and 14 continuing responsibilities were to ‘come under’ the jurisdiction of the National Joint Council, the ‘normal body for national industrial agreements’ for FRSs where pay and conditions are negotiated.

That new agreement was in place until January, but ‘with a view to extension beyond that’. However, in January the FBU announced that the national employer and the NFCC had ‘unilaterally scrapped’ the agreement, stating that negotiations over health and safety measures for firefighters ‘delivering high risk’ COVID-19 duties ‘were ongoing’ when the national employer ‘issued a communication ending the agreement’.

The FBU added that the decision ‘appears to be supported’ by the NFCC, and added that ‘this was done without any prior notice to firefighters or the FBU’, claiming that the termination ‘is driven by the employers’ desire to alter previously agreed safety arrangements which protected firefighters undertaking additional work’, including submitting a negative test before returning to stations, ‘protecting the service from mass outbreaks by removing the risk of cross contamination’.

It said that in talks the employers ‘attempted to remove this protection at a national level’, and despite the FBU offering a range of ‘alternative safety measures to enable the activities to proceed safely’, these were rejected before the employers ‘unilaterally withdrew from the agreement’. As a consequence, ‘there are now no national protections for firefighters delivering COVID-19 duties’, with the FBU calling this an ‘abdication of responsibility’ by the employers.

The ‘uneven’ health and safety practices in other sectors ‘should not be repeated’ for the FRSs, and it urged the employers to ‘get back around the table so that the national agreement can be reintroduced in full’, with the FBU to speak with members before issuing further guidance. A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Service (HMICFRS) claimed the FBU ‘stopped firefighters helping’ with COVID-19 support actions - this was contested by the FBU, which called the report ‘a political and biased attack on firefighters’.

More recently, the NFCC commented on the assistance being given by a number of FRSs across the country to help with vaccinations, testing and other support activities.