Will being vaccinated against Covid-19 become a requirement of employment?

With the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme proving successful in driving down infection rates in the UK, restrictions are gradually easing, and life is beginning to feel a little more ‘normal’.

Despite vaccination in the UK being optional, latest statistics show that 67% of those over the age of 18 have had a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with 34% having received two doses. As vaccination is offered to lower age groups, these figures are set to increase further, but a combination of those who can’t and those who won’t get vaccinated means there will always be a proportion of the population who remain unvaccinated.

Nonetheless, experts predict that the vaccination programme and natural immunity in those who have previously been infected with Covid-19 means we are starting to see herd immunity take effect[1]. This should prevent large-scale outbreaks in the future, but it will not prevent smaller outbreaks, illness, and death amongst those who are not vaccinated.

As employers, we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of employees which is a reason why we there is a slowly rumbling debate about whether the optional nature of Covid-19 vaccination is sufficient, or whether businesses are justified in requiring proof of vaccination for both new and existing employees.

On the face of it, this is hugely contentious. Some argue that such an approach is incompatible with a free society such as the UK, it would be an infringement on people’s human rights, and it is discriminatory to prohibit someone from working because they have not been vaccinated. However, the reality is that we already face work restrictions when it comes to health matters, particularly when communicable diseases are involved.

For example, around 65% of countries have rules in place that prevent people without a yellow fever vaccination certificate from entering: something that business travellers already must consider; many medical conditions and illnesses prohibit people from driving and driving jobs; and under the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984, you can be subject to a raft of restrictions and requirements, including enforced absence from work, compulsory vaccination and mandatory detainment in hospital if you have the misfortune to be infected with one of several “notifiable” diseases.

So, is it too much of a stretch to consider that we will get to a stage where proof of vaccination against Covid-19 becomes a standard part of being employed or that choosing to not be vaccinated prevents you from getting a job?

Certainly not. In fact, whilst the Government is yet to legislate, it did open a consultation in April 2021 as to whether compulsory vaccination should be a requirement for those working in older adult care homes. Some London NHS Trusts are also believed to be preparing to make vaccination compulsory for their workers.

Whilst these two examples might appear “reasonable”, given that they relate to healthcare settings, the Financial Times recently reported that UK businesses are already engaging lawyers to create employment contracts which require new and existing employees to be vaccinated once vaccines have been offered to everyone. With many countries also likely to require proof of vaccination as a condition of entry, then the prospect of showing a “vaccine passport” as part of the recruitment process becomes increasingly likely for some.

Whilst it appears that the Government is reluctant to legislate either for, or against, businesses in this regard, with England’s NHS app already available to use as a vaccine passport, the debate will rumble on for some time.

We are likely to see many lengthy court cases on the subject over the next few years and the debate over whether it is both legally and morally right for businesses to limit employment to those that have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 is sure to rumble on.

So, what should businesses do? In the first instance they should tread carefully. For large businesses and specific sectors, such as healthcare, implementing a policy requiring vaccination may be worth the risk of legal battles in the future. For small and medium sized business, who do not have the luxury of in-house lawyers or large bank balances to fight legal cases, they need to ensure they know what they can and can’t do under current employment law and how that law changes.

One thing is for sure. For businesses to navigate this emotive and important issue, they need employment advice and support. Fortunately, at K Bater Consultancy we are experts in helping small and medium sized businesses on all aspects of employment law and human resource management, and the debate surrounding Covid-19 vaccination passports is something we are watching very closely.

About K Bater Consultancy

K Bater Consultancy provides human resource support, advice, and solutions to small and medium sized businesses across the UK.

Its founder and principal, Kelly Bater, has more than 20 years’ experience advising and supporting small and medium sized businesses with all aspects of human resource management, is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and has a Post Graduate Diploma in HR Management.

To find out more about how K Bater Consultancy can help your business, contact Kelly today on 07500 939255 or via email at kelly@kbaterhr.com

[1] Source: ZOE COVID Symptom Study