Covid-19 vaccines - what should employers know?

The UK has now approved three vaccines for COVID-19 and the Government is currently in the process of offering it to the public according to its priority-based strategy. However, with the Government’s dedication in offering a vaccine to all adults by the autumn, and carrying the message that getting a vaccine represents the best chance of returning to some form of normality, employers may be wondering what the HR implications of the vaccines may be.

Returning to “normal”

A popular question that employers will have is how quickly we will be able to return to some form of normality once the vaccine has been rolled out. This remains to be seen.

Employers will need to keep up to date with all relevant government guidance, keeping in mind that it is likely to take some time to vaccinate the entirety of the UK population. It has already been indicated by the Government that we may need to live under certain levels of restriction for some time. That said, as more people are vaccinated, it can be assumed that certain restrictions will be lifted gradually, including that relating to homeworking.

Vaccine as a work perk?

Some employers may be wondering if, like flu jabs, the vaccine can be offered to staff as a perk. It has yet to be confirmed if the vaccine will become available privately. Given the extreme demand for its usage worldwide, current commentary from the Government suggests that it will monitor carefully how and when it is distributed.

Just like the question of returning to normal, as more people are vaccinated and COVID-19 hopefully becomes less threatening (especially to the NHS), companies may be presented with the opportunity to seek private vaccinations.

Enforceability

The next big question that many employers may have is whether they can legally oblige their employees to take the vaccine before returning to work.

The Government has not chosen to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory. Despite this, there may be some industry sectors that are able, because of their specific circumstances, to implement a requirement for its staff to have the vaccine to ensure patient safety. This may apply to operators in the care sector where maintaining social distancing and adhering to other safety measures is not possible.

In workplaces that do not involve care, such as offices or retail, it may be considerably more difficult to put in place such a restriction due to there being ways to mitigate the risk such as through social distancing or homeworking measures where possible.

In addition, there could be a number of reasons why employees do not want to take the vaccine; they may have been advised not to due to a pre-existing medical condition, or due to their religious beliefs. If employees are subjected to a detriment as a result of this, or other such reasons, employers may face costly discrimination claims.

How should employers approach the vaccine issue?

For the majority of employers, the most appropriate course of action is likely to be encouraging staff. It should also be considered if external trainers may be required to further explain why the vaccines are safe and effective.

Alternatively, employees can be encouraged to read information from official sources to facilitate their decision making. Employees should also be reminded to treat their colleague with respect regardless of their decision over having, or not having, the vaccine.

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