The UK has outlined its plan to ease lockdown restrictions over the next few months, coinciding with the continued rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. Although there is a long road to normality ahead, employers are already exploring if and when workers will be able to return to their workplaces – and what this will entail.
The plan is to vaccinate as many people as possible and for UK adults to be vaccinated before 31st July. Those who have been vaccinated get a record card and the jab – like any other vaccine –≠≠ goes on their medical record.
Although the jab isn’t mandatory, vaccine passports may be necessary to go on holiday or to get a new job. It may be legal for companies to insist on new members of staff being vaccinated as a condition of their employment, the justice secretary Robert Buckland recently said.
The London-based firm Pimlico Plumbers has said it will be rewriting employees’ contracts to make the vaccination compulsory. If workers don’t want the vaccine, it will be decided on a case-by-case basis whether they are kept on or let go. Other firms, such as care-home companies, are believed to be considering making the jab obligatory too. It’s possible firms may draw up “no jab, no job” contracts for new employees.
But can employers really only hire people who have been vaccinated? Or does this pose legal risks?
“Various companies across the UK have said they will consider only making hires if the individual has been vaccinated, prompting whether this is discriminatory,” says Alan Price, employment law expert and CEO at HR software and employment law advice service, BrightHR.
“The first thing that employers should bear in mind is that getting a vaccine for Covid-19 has not been made compulsory by the government, and indeed there does not seem to be any plans for them to do this. As such, employers technically have no legal basis on which to try and enforce a policy like this, and if they want to do so, they will need to proceed carefully.”
However, it may be easier for certain sectors to argue that this policy is necessary than others. If you work in a care home with at-risk residents, you may be expected to have the vaccine without question in order to keep service users and other colleagues safe, unless you are medically exempt from the jab.
Some companies may want all staff to have the vaccine to limit infection rates in the workplace, but it may be tricker to implement mandatory vaccination policies for office workers.
WATCH: How England will leave lockdown
“This may be much more difficult to enforce in office-based environments, especially if other mitigating measures, such as social distancing and remote working, can be put in place to minimise the risk of infection,” Price says.
Downing Street has said it would be "discriminatory" to order people to be vaccinated to keep their job, as businesses aren’t allowed to discriminate against people for reasons including disability, pregnancy and religious belief.
And the vaccine isn’t suitable for people with certain health conditions, including immune system problems. According to Price, the discriminatory aspect is a risk employers need to consider seriously.
READ MORE: How to handle vaccine hesitancy at work
“We are still months away from a situation where most of the UK's adult population is vaccinated, meaning deliberately refusing to hire someone based on not yet being jabbed could constitute age discrimination,” he says. “It should also be remembered that there could be several reasons why individuals do not want to take a vaccine, such as long-term medical conditions that could potentially be considered a disability.”
There is nothing legally to stop a business from placing a "no jab, no job" clause in contracts for new hires, legal experts have said. But Price suggests it may be more advisable for employers to focus on encouraging their staff to take the vaccine, whether they are new to the company or have worked for it already for some time.
“This could be done in many ways, from awareness days to ensuring they are getting their information on vaccines from verified sources and access to e-learning courses,” he adds.