What are vaccinations and what are their purpose?
A vaccine (ie vaccination) is a medical means of injecting something into an individual to stimulate their immune system’s response to a particular disease or similar, with the aim of improving that individual’s ability to fight off that disease or similar if they’re infected with it in the future.
Research has shown that vaccines are one of the most effective ways of preventing many serious infectious diseases. Vaccines protect individuals who receive them as well as others within a community, as they help to stop the spread of diseases to those who cannot have vaccines.
Vaccines are rigorously tested for safety before being introduced and are also closely monitored for side effects after they are introduced.
For more information, read the NHS’ guidance on vaccinations.
Does the NHS provide vaccines?
The NHS provides some vaccines free of charge. Various childhood vaccinations are currently free on the NHS, including vaccines against:
measles, mumps, and rubella
Certain other vaccinations are also available on the NHS for free for people within certain vulnerable groups. Others are available for a charge.
For more information, see the NHS’ vaccination schedule.
Is the Coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccination still available?
The full Covid-19 vaccination service initially provided by the NHS in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been suspended since 30 June 2023.
A more targeted seasonal offer will now be available for those with an increased risk. The NHS has advised that the service will open later in 2023 and that they will contact anyone whose records suggest that they might be eligible for further seasonal Covid-19 vaccines.
Encouraging staff vaccinations
Employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their staff members. In some workplaces, encouraging staff members to protect themselves and others by receiving vaccinations may be an appropriate way of mitigating the health and safety risks posed by certain illnesses.
There are certain vaccinations that the NHS particularly recommends for certain groups of people. For example, pregnant people, children, or those who travel to particular countries. An employer might, therefore, specifically recommend these vaccinations to certain staff members based on their particular job roles and/or in order to protect certain other individuals.
Employers may wish to talk to their staff members about vaccines and the benefits of being vaccinated. Employers may wish to share:
whether staff members will be paid for time taken off work to get or to recover from vaccinations
whether staff members are encouraged to be vaccinated (remember that you cannot force staff members to get any vaccines)
the government's latest vaccine health information
Having an open conversation with staff members can help maintain a healthy working relationship and avoid future disputes, while supporting staff in protecting their health.
It can also help to agree on an Employee vaccination policy. Having a written policy in place allows employers to demonstrate how they implement their health and safety strategy without interfering with the rights and freedoms of staff.
Employers may wish to consider offering benefits for getting vaccinated, including:
paid time off for vaccination appointments
paying staff their usual pay for sick leave due to vaccine side effects (ie instead of just statutory sick pay (SSP))
not counting vaccine-related absences in absence records or towards HR 'trigger' points in the employer’s Sickness policy
Employers do not have to pay for vaccinations that they recommend to their staff members. However, if they recommend vaccinations that are not free on the NHS, an employer might choose to pay for their staff members’ vaccinations. This could be via direct funding, on-site vaccination days, or by providing vaccination vouchers.
Can employers require staff members to be vaccinated?
While employers can adopt an Employee vaccination policy encouraging staff members to receive certain vaccines where possible, employers cannot require staff members or potential staff members to be vaccinated as this is a highly personal choice and there may be many reasons why an employee might choose not to receive a vaccination.
If employers feel that it is important for staff to be vaccinated against any particular illnesses, they should speak to their staff members and/or the relevant recognised trade union to discuss what steps to take.
Any decision reached after such discussions should be recorded in writing. It should be in line with existing Disciplinary and Grievance policies. Before adopting an employee vaccination policy, employers should consider:
discussing their approach to vaccines with their staff members
informing staff members that, for travel for work, especially to high-risk countries, certain vaccinations may be necessary
Employers should consider Asking a lawyer for advice before adopting a vaccination policy.
Employers should also:
ensure that any vaccination strategies include exceptions for staff members who cannot get vaccinated (eg due to medical or belief reasons)
ensure that any policies introduced and incentives offered to receive vaccinations will not discriminate against staff members with protected characteristics (eg a disability or belief) who have reasons for not having the vaccination
If a member of staff does not get vaccinated, employers should listen to their concerns, bearing in mind that some individuals may not be able to get vaccinated (eg because of health reasons, such as a compromised immune system) or they may have health concerns (eg they may worry about having an allergic reaction to a vaccine).
If a staff member with concerns has not already done so, employers may wish to encourage them to speak to their GP.
Employers should be sensitive to personal situations and keep concerns (especially those relating to health) confidential.
Are staff members who choose not to get vaccines protected by equality law?
Equality and anti-discrimination laws prohibit employers from treating individuals less favourably than others due to their status in relation to one of the specified ‘protected characteristics’. These laws may give individuals legal claims against their employers should their employers subject them to unjustified disadvantage in relation to their not getting certain vaccines. For example:
staff members who cannot have certain vaccines because of a medical condition will typically be protected by disability provisions within the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, if a vaccine is refused due to allergies to any components of the vaccine, this may be protected as a disability
staff members may refuse vaccines as a result of religious beliefs. Such religious beliefs do not have to be shared by everybody within the relevant religion to potentially be protected
Staff members with an anti-vaccination belief may argue that this is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act. The Equality Act protects certain beliefs (eg the use of natural medicine or the belief in climate change) if they are deemed genuinely held and worthy of respect.
While there is no definitive answer as to whether anti-vaccination beliefs are protected under the Equality Act, such beliefs could be protected and lead to compensation. Employers should Ask a lawyer if a staff member refuses a vaccine due to philosophical beliefs.
Monitoring staff vaccinations
Where any information regarding staff members’ vaccination statuses or their health in general is recorded (eg to monitor time off), employers need to make sure that they comply with data protection requirements.
This is particularly important for personal health and vaccination information as information about staff members’ vaccination statuses is ‘special category sensitive personal data’, a type of personal data (ie information about an individual from which they may be identified) that is given greater protection than other forms of personal data.
A Data protection impact assessment (DPIA) needs to be completed before any data is collected that is likely to pose a high risk to staff members, for example, through the denial of work opportunities. This will generally be the case with the collection of health data such as vaccination statuses.
For more information, read Recording staff members’ vaccination statuses.