The arrival of Covid vaccines brought huge hope that the dreadful effects of the pandemic would soon be curtailed. And, if the widely shared footage is anything to go by, those who have had their jabs have been buoyed by the protection.
But not everyone is keen to be vaccinated. Whether they are part of the ‘anti-vax’ movement, or they have another reason for not wanting or not being able to have the jab, some will turn it down. For employers keen to get back to the pre-Covid way of working, this will present a real challenge when the vaccine starts to be rolled out to their workplace demographic. Some are, quite rightly, thinking ahead to how they might tackle the issue.
Force employees to have the vaccine?
Vaccination against Covid-19 remains voluntary, and a person can’t be forced to have the injection. So, a manager’s email requiring all employees to be vaccinated could have some serious consequences.
If an employer simply wants a vaccinated workforce for reasons of general risk limitation, productivity and minimised absence among staff, it might not be reasonable to ‘instruct’ employees to take the injection. Disciplining an employee who refuses is risky; basing disciplinary action on refusing to comply with what may be an unreasonable instruction, will almost certainly be unfair. Employees are likely to argue that they could continue to do their job without having the vaccine. There is also the risk that disciplinary action, whether it’s a warning or dismissal, could be discriminatory. Groups of people may have particular reasons for not taking up an offer of the vaccine: pregnant women, and those with certain disabilities and religious beliefs, for example. They could be protected in law from being treated less favourably for having refused to be vaccinated.
That’s a snapshot of some of the issues, and of course there are so many different factors in play in different workplaces. Contrast the situation of an employer in the financial services sector with an organisation where staff have to be in close contact with vulnerable people; a private nursing home, for example. Requiring a nurse to have the Covid vaccine could well be a reasonable instruction because of the nature of his or her work, and if they refuse then the employer may be able to take some sort of disciplinary action. But that is certainly not something that should be considered without careful regard being paid to all the circumstances – including the reason for the refusal.
Employers should take as pragmatic an approach as possible to the needs of their business and to ways in which employees who may have legitimate worries or needs can be accommodated. The last twelve months have taught us that, actually, many of us can work from home. It might not be ideal in all respects, and it mightn’t be something we want to adopt forever, but it can work. So if, when the time comes, an employee says they don’t want to be vaccinated, think about what that means for your organisation and what other options there may be. Could you extend that person’s homeworking arrangement? If they can’t work from home, could you agree that they will be redeployed in your business or even, simply, moved to a physical space where the risk of them catching or passing on the virus is at the lowest possible level? In short, don’t leap to discipline. If you want your employees to be vaccinated, make sure you have a sound reason for that and talk to them about it. Understand any objections, and look for ways of making things work for everybody.
Acas has issued some helpful guidance for employers. Some of the key points are:
Getting the coronavirus for work
- Employers should support staff in getting the vaccine, but cannot force them to be vaccinated.
- Employers may find it useful to talk with staff about the vaccine and share the benefits of being vaccinated (educating and listening, rather than forcing).
Someone doesn’t want to be vaccinated
- If someone doesn’t want to be vaccinated, the employer should listen to their concerns.
- Employers should be sensitive towards individual situations and must keep any concerns confidential.
Employer decides staff should be vaccinated
- An employer may decide it’s necessary for staff to be vaccinated. This should only be the case if getting the vaccine is required for someone to do their job (eg business travel to other countries where vaccinations are needed).
- If an employer decides vaccinations are necessary, they should agree it with staff or with the recognised trade union. The agreement should be put in writing, eg in a workplace policy.
- If an employer believes someone’s reason for refusing the vaccine is unreasonable, in some situations it could result in a disciplinary procedure. That will depend on if it’s the workplace’s policy to be vaccinated and necessary for someone to do their job.
- An employer must consider if someone’s reason for not wanting the vaccine could be protected from discrimination by the Equality Act.