The roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination scheme in Northern Ireland will come as a welcome relief to many employers, who hope to return to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible. But what do employers need to consider over the coming months as the vaccine becomes available to the general population? Our Seamus McGranaghan spoke on Downtown Cool FM this morning to highlight key considerations for employers when engaging with their employees about taking the vaccine.
Some of the key points discussed included:
- The vaccine roll-out in Northern Ireland is still in its early stages – the government are currently prioritising administering the vaccine to the priority groups who are most at risk of the virus. The majority of the workforce will be eligible for the vaccine in Summer 2021, according to the government’s phased vaccination programme. At present, employers cannot order batches of the vaccine to administer to their staff privately. We must simply wait for the phased programme to progress through each stage.
- Can employers mandate or require vaccination? – despite the overarching duty of care that employers owe to employees with regards to health and safety in the workplace, there is no statutory basis for forcing employees to take a vaccine. The Public Health Act 1984 expressly provides that individuals should not be compelled to undergo mandatory medical treatment, including vaccination. However, asking employees to take the Covid-19 vaccine once eligible could be construed as an employer’s reasonable instruction or request on the basis of reducing risk to health and safety in the workplace. Whether such a request is reasonable will depend on the circumstances and nature of the employer’s business. For example, an employer in the healthcare sector will have more obvious justification for requesting that their employees take the vaccine than an employer whose workforce can work effectively from home.
- Employee objections – many employees will seek to object to taking the Covid-19 vaccine, including but not limited to the following reasons:
- Medical reasons – employees with allergies may be advised not to take the vaccine due to its ingredients. Pregnant women, or those intending to become pregnant, may avoid taking the vaccine in line with general medical advice to avoid vaccination during pregnancy.
- Philosophical and religious belief – individuals of a certain faith, or who subscribe to certain beliefs, may not wish to take the vaccine. For example, if the vaccine contains animal products, such as gelatine, or if the vaccine underwent animal testing.
- The “anti-vax” belief – some employees who are opposed to vaccinations may argue that they hold a valid philosophical belief in this regard. This concept is subject to considerable debate, but employers should consider whether employees hold a valid philosophical belief against vaccines, and not merely a viewpoint.
- The risk of mandating vaccines – an employer who requires that all employees take the Covid-19 vaccine could run the risk of potential discrimination claims, especially on grounds of disability or religious belief. Moreover, an employee who is essentially forced to take the vaccine may regard this as a breach of human rights. Employers should therefore be cautious not to ‘force’ their employees, but rather to encourage them to avail of the vaccine when they become eligible.
- Can I discipline staff who refuse the vaccine? – it would be difficult for an employer to justify disciplinary action against an employee who refuses to take the vaccine, even on grounds of risk to health and safety. It is a better approach for employers to communicate openly and positively with their employees instead, highlighting key factual information about the vaccine and providing resources to employees for more information on the vaccination programme.
- Data protection issues – employers may wish to request evidence from employees to confirm that they have received the vaccine. However, this request could give rise to significant data protection issues, and employers should carefully consider if such data is necessary for their business needs.
- The best course of action that employers can take currently is to promote the health and safety of their workforce as much as possible by enhancing the safety of the workplace and permitting staff to work from home where possible.
- Provide factual, clear resources relating to the vaccination programme and listen to employees’ concerns.
- Adopt an attitude of encouraging, rather than forcing, employees to take the vaccine where eligible.
- Consider the possibility of incentivising employees to take the vaccine by providing additional paid leave to take the Covid-19 vaccine.
A Link to the article on Cool FM website can be viewed here.