Covid-19 vaccine – Is this the light at the end of the tunnel for employers?

As the roll-out of mass Covid-19 vaccination gets under way, it has become clear that some employees are reluctant to be vaccinated.  We answer some key questions that employers, who are keen to get staff back in the workplace (whether or not with a combination of ongoing home-working), may be asking:

Can an employer require employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine?

In short, no. The government has not legislated for the vaccine to be mandatory, so on balance it would be risky for employers to insist on vaccination, even in workplaces where there is close contact with vulnerable people, such as in hospitals and care homes. If employers were to try to force their employees to be vaccinated, it could give rise to objections on the grounds of it being an unnecessary invasion of the employee’s entitlement to individual liberty and human rights and may also have criminal implications. Forcing an employee to receive a vaccine injection under duress, could constitute an unlawful injury. A vaccination requires an individual’s informed and voluntary consent.

Can an employer discipline or dismiss an employee who refuses to have a Covid-19 vaccine?

The Acas guidance suggests that a refusal to be vaccinated could, in some situations, result in a disciplinary procedure but this would depend on whether vaccination was necessary for an employee to do their job. The example given by Acas is if staff travel to other countries for work and need vaccinations to enter a country. In most cases, however, disciplining an employee, who refuses to be vaccinated could result in the employee resigning and claiming constructive dismissal. In this situation, as well as any dismissal by the employer of an employee, who did not want to get the Covid-19 vaccine, could give rise to a potentially successful unfair dismissal claim since it is likely that an employment tribunal would find in favour of the employee rather than find it fair to impose what is effectively a medical procedure on employees.

Whereas ordinary unfair dismissal claims require the employee to have a minimum of two years’ continuous employment, there is no qualifying period of employment for an employee to bring a discrimination claim in respect of a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.  For example, the employee may have a health condition that amounts to a disability, such as a serious allergy that prevents them from being vaccinated or they may be pregnant. Alternatively, the employee may be refusing to have a vaccination on religious grounds as it is understood that some vaccines use pig gelatine, which could be problematic for some religions and other philosophical beliefs, such as those held by vegans. It may also be possible that an ardent anti-vaxxer could argue that their stance was protected as a philosophical belief if it is genuinely held and worthy of respect in a democratic society. 

If employees cannot be forced to have the Covid-19 vaccine, how best can they be encouraged?

An employer has an implied duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of its employees and to take reasonable steps to provide a safe workplace and a safe system of work. If an employee does not want to be vaccinated, the employer should listen to their concerns and be sensitive towards the individual situation.  Employers may find it useful to talk with their staff about the benefits of being vaccinated to encourage voluntary vaccination within their workforce – particularly since evidence suggests that the success of the vaccination in eradicating the spread of the virus will depend on the extent of the take-up.  For health advice about the vaccines, see https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-vaccination/coronavirus-vaccine/

Can those employees, who will not or cannot be vaccinated, be prevented from attending the work-place?

It is understandable that employers will want to avoid the risk of Covid-19 returning to the workplace and continuing to spread amongst those who have not had the vaccination. Accordingly, an employer may decide on health and safety grounds not to permit employees, who have not been vaccinated, to attend the workplace. Such a course of action could potentially give rise to age discrimination claims on the basis that younger employees are unlikely to receive the vaccine until the last phase of immunisation or disability claims if the vaccination is not suitable for an employee due to a medical condition. An unlawful deduction from wages claim might also arise if unvaccinated employees’ pay is affected because they are not permitted to attend work. In view of these issues, employers should consider other alternatives such as working from home and/or regular testing of unvaccinated employees.

Can an employer make an offer of employment conditional upon having had a Covid-19 vaccination?

Potentially yes but the risks of discrimination claims as outlined above could still apply and since most employers anticipate low levels of recruitment for the foreseeable future, it would do little to secure widespread protection.

Do Covid-19 vaccination records need to be kept by an employer in accordance with GDPR and privacy laws?

In order to keep Covid-19 in the workplace under control, employers might want to keep a record of those who have and have not been vaccinated. This will constitute sensitive personal information and the records should comply with GDPR and privacy laws.

For further advice please get in touch with one of our North London Employment solicitors by email or call us on 020 8349 0321.