Can you insist staff have the Coronavirus vaccine?

With the COVID-19 vaccination programme ramping up, as an employer, you may be facing the dilemma of what to do if your staff refuse to be vaccinated.

Here we look at why staff may object to having the Coronavirus vaccine, how you can encourage them to do so and what measures you may be allowed to take under law. This may help you to identify any potential issues and gain an understanding of how to deal with them.

Duty of care

Whilst employers have a duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of their employees, there are no statutory provisions to force them to become vaccinated.

The Public Health Act 1984 specifically states that people should not be compelled to undergo any mandatory medical treatment, which includes vaccines. That said, requiring employees to agree to the vaccination against Coronavirus is likely to be a reasonable step to reducing the risk to employees’ health.

Employers should check existing contracts of employment to ascertain what the company position is on this and whether they are able to ask their staff to take the vaccine before returning to work. For most businesses this is unlikely to be the case however, and will be dependent on several factors such as the industry they operate in and the nature of the employee’s role. For example, healthcare workers may have provisions in their contracts which stipulate that they must take vaccinations or do all that is practicable to safeguard their health so they are able to carry out their duties without hindrance.

However, any employer mandating a vaccine in such a case must weigh up the impact on an employee’s human rights against the amount of risk reduced by vaccination. They would need to consider:

  • Does the vaccine reduce transmission, or does it simply suppress symptoms in a carrier?
  • Are there any other less invasive steps that could be taken to reduce risk?

Vaccinations are not currently available for employers to purchase privately for employees, therefore employers are limited to what they can do other than encourage employees to take up the vaccine when they are eligible under the national programme.

Reasons for objecting to Coronavirus vaccination

Whatever the level of impact COVID-19 has had on their business, many employers may feel that getting a vaccine represents the best chance of returning to some form of normality, so will likely want all of their employees to take the vaccine. However, care is needed with this as not everyone can, or will want to, take it.

Employers will need to consider how requiring the vaccine to be taken will affect those who cannot have it because of the following reasons:

  • Medical reasons – some people may be allergic to some elements in the vaccine and have therefore been advised by the Government not to take it. Pregnant women, and those wishing to become pregnant, are currently advised not to have the vaccine as normal practice is not to recommend routine vaccination during pregnancy. (However, no specific concerns in relation to pregnancy have been raised so some women, such as those at high risk of catching the virus, may feel that it is better to go ahead with vaccination.)
  • Philosophical / religious beliefs – such as not eating or using animal-based produce – followers may refuse the vaccination because of its ingredients (e.g. pork, gelatine). Vegans may also disagree with vaccinations that have been tested on animals.

Those who align themselves with the “anti-vax” movement may try to argue that they fall within this category. Anyone bringing the claim would, of course, need to show that they had a belief, rather than just a viewpoint, and that it met the requirements to be considered as a philosophical belief.

Can staff be disciplined if they refuse?

Taking into account the above reasons for refusing to have the vaccination, you will need to decide what stance the business will take on any objections considered invalid and how you will deal with them.

Employers may be tempted to consider disciplinary action if an employee repeatedly refuses a vaccination, but any such measures should be considered very carefully before being implemented.

There is a risk that such a policy could cause employee relations problems, as employees may feel that this should be a personal decision.  It may also raise a number of legal issues with a potential risk of complaints relating to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

Dealing with objections

It’s very unlikely that an employer would be able to use health and safety grounds to justify taking disciplinary action against an employee for refusing a vaccine, particularly in the early stages of the vaccination programme.  This may change over time as more is known about the vaccination programme, but there is still likely to be a very high threshold to meet to justify such a policy.

A better course of action would be to clearly communicate to all staff (both working on site or remotely) the official (Government) stance on the Coronavirus vaccination programme, and why vaccination is so important to their health and that of family and friends, as well as of fellow colleagues. This should help to reduce the likelihood of them refusing the vaccine due to fear stemming from the spread of false information.

As their employer your message should include:

  • Sharing impartial, factual information to help employees to make informed decisions regarding their vaccination
  • Encouraging employees to read up about COVID-19 vaccinations via official sources, paying particular attention to the information the NHS provides when offering the vaccine
  • Placing posters around the workplace providing information on where employees can obtain more information

Where there is no automatic entitlement for employees to take time off work to attend vaccination appointments, employers may wish to incentivise employees by allowing additional paid leave to attend COVID-19 vaccination appointments.

Employers should also be mindful that the subject of COVID-19 vaccines can be divisive and lead to the expression of strong opinions. Communication should be clear that bullying and harassment, for example, mocking a colleague’s views or foisting their own views on COVID-19 vaccinations, will not be tolerated and may lead to disciplinary action.

Developing a measured approach

Together with your continued hygiene policy for the workplace, by devising a suitable plan of action, including the above recommendations, and by adopting an empathetic approach to staff with concerns or objections to vaccination, your business will be better equipped to deal with any issues arising from the Coronavirus vaccination programme and further help protect your staff against infection.

Further information can be found on the following website:

NHS Coronavirus Vaccine information – click here for details.