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COVID vaccinations - how do employers tread the path?

In this blog we acknowledge the issue around enforcing a COVID vaccination for your employees as restrictions begin to lift. How can employers create a workplace environment which is supportive and constructive in its approach to the vaccination programme?

In earlier blogs, we've looked at how the pandemic has impacted upon the way we work and the way we manage our teams in terms of mental health, wellness, flexible working and productivity.

In our previous blog 'Hybrid working: It's here to stay but will it work for your business?' we looked at the concept of hybrid working and how companies may formally introduce the model. Businesses need to react to the remote working phenomenon which has been created by the pandemic.

In our blog 'Ditching the daily commute - is it really a boost for mental health?' we offered advice to employers about how they can continue to support their home workers and encourage positive remote working practices.

As a business, can I enforce a mandatory COVID vaccination policy?

There's no law in the UK requiring workers to have the COVID vaccination; indeed, some employees may have been advised not to take it based on health grounds and some may have strong personal beliefs as to why they will not be vaccinated. Discussion between employer and employee about the vaccination is, therefore, a delicate path to tread. 

Here, we're sharing the current advice, what employers can do to support their employees and how to encourage positive, open dialogue about immunisation.

What is the current opinion on COVID vaccinations for the UK workforce?

Is there a consensus of opinion about whether companies should ask their workers to have the Covid vaccination? What do workers have to say?

At the start of this year, certain business owners were quite vocal in their opinion about the vaccination - Charlie Mullins, Chairman of Pimlico Plumbers was one of them:

In the Pimlico Plumber blog - Pimlico Pipes Up:

"Just to be clear, as a company we believe that vaccinations are the way of the future to keep people safe from COVID-19. However, that doesn't mean that anyone should be forced to have a jab, and as a company not only can we not do that, but we would never advocate such a policy; it would be an outrage.

We will, when vaccinations are readily available, make having one a condition of employment for all people who are able to have the vaccine safely. Once again existing members of staff, will not be forced to do anything they do not want to do, although for safety reasons we would recommend and encourage them to be vaccinated."

And in a poll reported earlier in March by People Management, 56% of 2,000 workers supported mandatory vaccinations before workers returned to the workplace. In the same survey, 1 in 7 said they would resign if they were required to return before the entire workforce was immunised.

The legalities of enforcing vaccination?

The scale of the UK vaccination programme and the success of its uptake is one positive to take from the pandemic. The latest vaccination data can be found on the GOV.UK website.

Susan Clews, ACAS Chief Executive has been very positive about the programme:

"This is great news which has given hope to many businesses and staff that have been impacted by the pandemic."

That said, by asking employees to have the COVID vaccination, employers could be creating a potential source of conflict. Susan Clews goes on to say:

"Some employers have already indicated a wish for their employees to get vaccinated once it is their turn but this is a tricky area of employment law as vaccines have always been voluntary."

Writing on the employee benefits.co.uk website, Debbie Sadler (senior associate at Blaser Mills Law) says that enforcing vaccination could be challenged on legal grounds. Employers may well feel it is their responsibility on health and safety grounds to ensure a safe and vaccinated workplace. The reality is, is that if other measures such as social distancing and enforcing the wearing of masks are in place, then the company is demonstrating that it is mitigating the risk. 

Enforcing vaccination could be judged to be an infringement of human rights and if an individual were to suffer an adverse reaction to the vaccine it could lead to a personal injury claim against the employer. 

Add to this, the complex nature of GDPR and the issue of holding medical records on staff. Then consider the fact that existing contracts of employment are highly unlikely to contain clauses about testing and vaccinations at the place of work; as the employer, your position looks even more fragile.

We've looked at what some of the legal experts are saying.

What's the best approach for you to take as an employer? 

Our blog will refer to ACAS guidance, but before you read on, ask yourself the following questions:

Are your employees, as part of their contractual obligations - 

  • Expected to travel (as and when COVID requirements permit)?
  • Expected to run or attend conferences?
  • Expected to attend 1-1 or Group meetings?

ACAS has published advice on getting the coronvirus vaccine for work

If having read the first part of our blog you are still considering making a coronavirus vaccination for work a requirement of your personnel, ACAS has published advice for employers. 

Essentially, employers can support their staff by giving them paid time off to attend vaccination or should staff develop side effects which make them feel unwell, then to offer paid sick leave for a few days whilst they recover.

We'll look at some of the detail over the next few sections.

Getting the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine for work

The advice to employers is to support your staff in having the vaccination - but without making it a mandatory requirement. 

Whether as a business you feel this is an intrinsic part of the way your company does business or you are ambivalent, engagement with your employees and associated trade unions (where this is applicable) is key: 

  • Promote open dialogue - which in itself is an added benefit and avoids potential conflict.
  • Create positive discussion about the health and welfare of staff.
  • Agree a vaccine policy - and to make provision for future vaccines/booster vaccinations.

Supporting staff to get the vaccine

In more detail, talk through the latest government health advice with your employees. 

Demonstrate your support by giving staff paid time off to attend a vaccination and paid time off should anyone feel poorly after the vaccine (as opposed to paying Statutory Sick Pay). You could also say to staff that any absence due to side effects won't be recorded on the company's absence records.

Bear in mind that if, as the employer you are recording who has and hasn't received the vaccine, your record taking must comply with GDPR regulations.

If someone does not want the vaccine

Make provision for conversations that may be unexpected. Listen to staff who express a wish not to be vaccinated - they may have legitimate health grounds for not taking the vaccine. 

First and foremost listen to them, understand their reasoning and remember that any personal information discussed is confidential.

If a staff member expresses concern about their health and the vaccine always advise them to seek information from their GP.

If an employer feels staff should be vaccinated

Obviously the best scenario is for the employer to support the employee in getting vaccinated.

If you feel staff should be vaccinated then discuss your reasoning with work members and their trade union representative if appropriate. Document any decisions made during the meeting - for example in your workplace policy - and ensure it is referenced in the company's disciplinary and grievance policy.

The guidance however, is still to seek legal advice before attempting to introduce a vaccine policy.

Resolving an issue about getting the vaccine

Attempt to resolve any issues that arise informally. Encourage employees to discuss any concerns with their line manager, their workforce representative, their trade union representative, or their health and safety representative.

The last resort, should an issue not be resolved would be for a worker to raise a grievance or the employer to invoke disciplinary proceedings.

We all have a shared responsibility

We've established that there is no statute in place in UK law to impose a requirement that all workers should have the COVID vaccination. Discussion around the reasoning for vaccination between employer and employee can be positive - it doesn't need to be contentious. Dialogue can and should be constructive and demonstrates to the employee that the company wants to support them and is concerned about the health and welfare of its employees.

Our blog has included practical advice for employers at each stage of the discussion - whether an individual is pro or against vaccination. At all times, employers should demonstrate understanding and empathy. 

We all have a responsibility to follow the latest government guidelines so staff should be encouraged to do so even if they have had the vaccination.

For employers, the key advice is to keep abreast of the latest information, consult with  your employees and advise on the stance the business has decided to adopt; silence could be foolhardy. 

How can Q&A People Matter help you?

Do you need advice about discussing the COVID vaccination with your workforce? 

Get in touch with our experts.


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