May 17th saw a huge step forward in the government roadmap for easing COVID-19 restrictions as pubs, restaurants, cinemas and more opened their doors for the first time in months and families were allowed to meet indoors and even hug! It’s all great news of course but with new easing of restrictions comes new considerations for employers.
With the re-opening of many businesses, too we see the return of individuals to workplaces but it’s not business as usual as organisations are still very much responsible for managing the risk of COVID transmission. The vaccine programme in the U.K has been a huge success meaning many of those returning to the workplace have already received at least one vaccination - but what of those who haven’t and what about those who won’t?
Where do businesses stand?
Let’s answer the big question first. You can’t force anyone to get vaccinated. There is no legal basis the government can rely on to force people to have a vaccine if they do not want one. Furthermore the government hasn’t published information about vaccines that is directed at the general public and has only published guidance for frontline healthcare workers which much like any other guidance simply explains the benefits of being vaccinated.
Can we ask our employees to get vaccinated?
Yes, you can ask them, but you cannot enforce it. To do so would be a matter of contract and employment law which is not our area of expertise but employment lawyers have stated that if taking the vaccine is can be considered a reasonable management instruction in line with the employee's duties then there may be justification for inclusion of this in contracts and any subsequent action if is not acted upon.
What about the safety of others?
Putting it bluntly - it’s your responsibility. The Health and Safety At Work Act 1974 requires employers to take all reasonably practicable steps to reduce workplace risks to their lowest practicable level. There are no COVID19 specific rules within this, but in practical terms, it would mean that you should encourage your staff to take the vaccine when it is offered to them as part of your responsibility for the safety of them and others but also that you should continue to take all necessary precautions and to keep your workplace ‘ COVID secure’ until the majority of the population are vaccinated.
There’s a lot of grey areas
The law is clear you can’t enforce vaccination on Health and Safety grounds but there’s also the argument to say that if staff refuse to be vaccinated then they make it impossible for their employer to adhere to the law, and then there’s the science...
We haven’t been in workplaces together for over 12 months and not under the conditions where some of the workforces are vaccinated and some are not, we don’t know yet if the vaccine reduces transmission, we do know that failure to vaccinate can cause the potential spread of the virus but if the majority are vaccinated then does this pose such a risk after all?
One thing is certain, the coming months will be interesting and uncertain times for employers, the government plans to have offered every adult in the UK a vaccine by August - will the situation for employers look very different by then? Watch this space.