Encouraging staff vaccinations
Employers may wish to talk to their staff about Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines and the benefits of being vaccinated. Employers may wish to share:
if employees will be paid for time off work to get or recover from the vaccine
if the employer plans to collect data on staff vaccinations and, if so, how data will be protected
if staff are encouraged to be vaccinated before returning to the workplace (remember that you cannot force staff to get a vaccine)
the Government's latest vaccine health information
Having an open conversation with staff 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 a vaccination policy between an employer and their staff.
Employers may wish to consider offering benefits or incentives to get the vaccine, including:
paid time off for vaccination appointments
paying staff their usual pay for sick leave due to vaccine side effects, instead of statutory sick pay (SSP)
not counting vaccine-related absences in absence records or towards HR 'trigger' points in the employer’s Sickness policy
Where the vaccination status of staff is recorded, employers need to make sure that they comply with data protection requirements. For more information, read How to record the Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination status of staff.
Can employers require staff to be vaccinated?
While employers can adopt an Employee vaccination policy encouraging staff to be vaccinated where possible, employers cannot require employees or potential employees to be vaccinated. If employers feel that it is important for staff to be vaccinated, they should speak to their staff and/or the relevant recognised trade union to discuss what steps to take.
Any decision reached after such discussions should be recorded in writing in, for example, a vaccination policy. It should be in line with existing Disciplinary and Grievance policies. Before adopting a vaccination policy, employers should consider:
discussing the employer’s approach towards vaccines with their staff (eg whether vaccines will be encouraged for staff returning to the workplace)
informing staff members that for travel for work, especially to high-risk countries, the vaccine may be necessary
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 incentives offered to receive the vaccination will not discriminate against staff members with protected characteristics (eg a disability or belief) who have reasons for not having the vaccination
Employers should Ask a lawyer for advice before adopting a vaccination policy.
What if staff members refuse to be vaccinated?
Vaccinations require an individual’s informed and voluntary consent, which cannot be forced.
While employers may encourage employees to get vaccinated, they need to avoid discrimination with any vaccination policies they adopt.
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 the vaccination (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 the vaccine).
If a staff member has not already done so, employers may wish to encourage staff with concerns about the vaccine to speak to their doctor.
Employers should be sensitive to personal situations and keep concerns (especially those relating to health) confidential.
Staff that cannot get the vaccine
Staff who cannot have the vaccine because of a medical condition will typically be protected by disability provisions within the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, if the vaccine is refused due to allergies to any components of the vaccine, this may be protected as a disability.
Where staff members cannot be vaccinated due to genuine medical reasons, employers must take this into account and must meet their duty of ensuring the staff member’s health and safety at work (see ‘How to ensure the health and safety of unvaccinated staff’ below for more information).
Staff that refuse the vaccine due to religious belief
Staff members may refuse the vaccine as a result of religious beliefs. Such religious beliefs do not have to be shared by everybody within that religion to potentially be protected under the Equality Act 2010. If a staff member refuses the vaccine based on religious belief, employers should assess the specifics of the situation and listen to the staff member’s reasons for refusing vaccination. Where necessary, employers need to put in place other methods to ensure Coronavirus (COVID-19)-secure working (see ‘How to ensure the health and safety of unvaccinated staff’ below for more information).
Staff that refuse the vaccine due to philosophical belief
Staff members with an anti-vaccination belief may argue that it is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. 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 an employee refuses the vaccine due to philosophical beliefs.
How to ensure the health and safety of unvaccinated staff
For members of staff with a genuine medical reason preventing them from being vaccinated or for those with protected religious or philosophical beliefs, employers should take other steps to ensure their health and safety, allowing them to work in a Covid-secure manner.
What such steps entail will depend on the specifics of the situation and the role(s) in question, but may, for example, include:
facilitating remote working where possible
using screens to separate staff from each other
changing staff members’ work responsibilities or roles (to enable them to work remotely or in a safer working environment)
In certain circumstances, employers may consider taking medical advice, provided they have the staff member's consent for doing so.
For more information, read Employee health and safety in the workplace during Coronavirus (COVID-19).
Ultimately, if the return of unvaccinated staff to the workplace poses a threat to the wider staff’s health and safety, employers may consider asking unvaccinated staff members not to return to the office. However, this may entail legal risks for employers and legal advice should be sought before such a policy is put in place. Moreover, emerging evidence suggesting that people who have had vaccines still fairly regularly contract Coronavirus (COVID-19) suggests that requiring unvaccinated employees to stay away from the workplace may not be an infallible method of preventing Coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission. Therefore, asking unvaccinated staff to stay away may be increasingly difficult to justify. Starting disciplinary proceedings against staff members who refuse to get vaccinated, or dismissing or choosing not to hire them, would be very unlikely to be justified.
Before asking staff to return to work, employers should carry out a Return to work risk assessment to ensure the health and safety of all staff.