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Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccinations in the workplace

Employers need to ensure the safety of staff returning to work during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and this may include encouraging all staff to be vaccinated. Currently, there is no law requiring individuals to have the vaccine. Even if an employer prefers staff to have it, care must be taken not to discriminate (eg as some individuals may be advised not to have the vaccine).

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Employers may wish to talk to their staff about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine and the benefits of being vaccinated. Employers may wish to share:

  • if staff will need time off to get the vaccine

  • if employees will be paid for time off work related to the vaccine

  • if the employer plans to collect data on staff vaccinations, and if so, how data will be protected

  • if staff are required to be vaccinated to return to the workplace

  • the government's latest vaccine health information

Having an open conversation with staff can help maintain a working relationship and avoid future disputes while supporting staff in protecting their health. It can also help agree on a vaccination policy between employers and staff.

Employers may wish to consider offering benefits 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.

While employers can adopt an Employee vaccination policy encouraging staff to be vaccinated where possible, employers cannot typically require employees or potential employees to be vaccinated (unless they work in a sector where a legal requirement has been introduced, eg care homes).

If employers wish for staff to get vaccinated, it is best to support them without forcing them to get the vaccine. If employers feel that it is important for staff to be vaccinated, they should speak to their staff and/or the 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, and 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 required for staff returning to the workplace)

  • that any incentives offered to receive the vaccination will not discriminate against staff members with protected characteristics (eg disability or belief) who have reasons for not having the vaccination

  • inform staff members that travel for work, especially to high-risk countries (eg red list countries), that the vaccine will likely be necessary

  • that any vaccination strategies must include exceptions for staff members who cannot get vaccinated (eg due to medical or belief reasons)

Employers should Ask a lawyer before adopting a vaccination policy.

Vaccinations require an individual’s informed and voluntary consent and 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 may have health concerns (eg 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 component 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 ensure the staff member’s health and safety (see ‘​​How to ensure the health and safety of unvaccinated staff’ 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 Covid-secure working (see ‘​​How to ensure the health and safety of unvaccinated staff?’ 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 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.

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

  • grouping workers to fixed teams to reduce the number of people each individual has contact with

  • conducting frequent testing (eg lateral flow testing)

  • changing the staff member’s work responsibilities or role (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 the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis

Ultimately, if the return of unvaccinated staff to the workplace poses a threat to the wider staff’s health and safety, employers may consider not allowing unvaccinated staff members to return to the office. However, this may entail legal risks for employers and legal advice should be sought before such a ban is put in place. 

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.

If members of staff refuse vaccination, employers will need to consider other steps that can be taken to ensure the health and safety of all staff.

In certain settings (eg healthcare or care home settings) could consider potential disciplinary proceedings for failure to follow a reasonable instruction, provided the staff member’s refusal has serious consequences. However, taking disciplinary action is not without risk. Where an employer considers taking a disciplinary approach, they must make sure to follow any government guidance and seek specific advice on their situation.

Employers may also consider disciplinary action where staff refuse to follow an employer’s reasonable instruction regarding vaccination. While employment contracts contain an implied that employees must follow their employer’s reasonable instructions, whether the requirement to have a Covid-vaccine is reasonable has not yet been established in the courts. As a result, any disciplinary action carries with it risks of unfair dismissal, discrimination or other claims being brought against the employer. Employers should therefore be very careful before considering taking steps towards the disciplinary processes and dismissal.

Make your Employee vaccination policy
Get started
Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest

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