Can employers force staff to have a Covid vaccination?

The rollout of Covid vaccinations in the UK is moving swiftly ahead. This raises the issue of whether vaccinations will be a compulsory part of a health & safety in a workplace policy. Alongside this there are some individuals who are reluctant or unable to receive the vaccine, for example due to religious or medical grounds. There have also been questions raised whether ‘vaccine passports’ will be available and if people will have to give evidence of vaccination before being permitted into certain settings.

Employers have a responsibility to make their workplace safe and remove dangers from employees. As a result, medical protection, including vaccines, have been a part of certain jobs for many years. However, the prospect of imposing this nationally brings issues of personal choice to light.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development suggests businesses create a vaccination policy, which balances health & safety with the rights of the individual, combined with risk assessments relevant to the job role and the vulnerability of different individuals:

  • If an individual cannot have the vaccine due to a medical reason, then their role and working practices can be reviewed to see if this is a risk.
  • Where employees are hesitant for reasons of faith or concerns about the safety of the vaccine, they can be provided with more information that may remove their worries – for example vaccinations have been endorsed by various religious authorities.
  • If employees refuse to vaccinate then their safety and the safety of others should be looked at in light of their role and working practices: a home worker will be lower risk than someone in a confined team environment, for example.

Making vaccination compulsory has a number of legal factors to consider; the generic response is that employers cannot make vaccinations compulsory for existing or new staff. However, employers also have a lawful responsibility for safety and if an employee will not take reasonable steps then they could face disciplinary action. Individual circumstances will help determine what might be acceptable grounds to make vaccination a requirement of a job; a care worker looking after vulnerable people poses more risk than a computer programmer working from home.

To add to the quandary: can an employee ask if other employees have been vaccinated? Is asking the question relevant to the job? Is such information a special category under Data Protection Regulations?

The issue is not straightforward and needs to be considered along with other factors such as visitors, travel, PPE, and the work environment, so our message is: Do not act in haste. Take expert advice.

The CIPD provides a good summary Preparing for the COVID-19 vaccination: guide for employers and the Government produces regular updates on the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

If you have your own HR team or use the services of HR consultants you should speak with them. You may also have legal advice services included as part of your business insurance at no additional cost – check with your insurance broker if you’re not sure.

Duncan Sutcliffe
Director, Sutcliffe & Co Insurance Brokers - Worcester, Worcestershire