Covid Vaccinations & the Workplace – Ethical dilemma

On Wednesday 2nd December 2020, the Pfizer / BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine received approval from the MHRA (the UK medicines regulator). A mass vaccination programme is starting this month.  Although this will initially be targeted at the most vulnerable, over time it could become widespread. Additional effective vaccinations have also been developed and are awaiting various approvals. 

Together these give us all some hope that we can return to ‘normal.’ Whilst we don’t know what that might look like now, employees might be able to start returning to their workplaces. What approach will you take with covid vaccinations & the workplace?  

Let’s face it, how and where people work will never fully be the same as it was before the pandemic.  We believe that the way we work has fundamentally shifted this year. 

While there are some employers who will always insist employees need to be onsite at all times (and this may be fully justified, depending on the role they have), many have realised the benefits of remote working and want to continue at least an element of it going forward.  In fact, many we speak to are looking to a hybrid model of remote and office-based working.

What does the latest vaccine approval mean for Covid vaccinations & the workplace?

Covid vaccinations & the workplace

Many employers will want to encourage employees to be vaccinate. However the Government have been clear that it will not be a legal requirement.

A survey by Kantar in November found that while 75% of people said they would have the vaccination, 11% said they would ‘probably not’ and 8% said ‘definitely not’. 

Can employers insist that staff are vaccinated before returning to the physical workplace?

Like vaccines for other diseases, there is widespread opinion and a lot of misinformation out there. 

It’s clear that not every employee might want to be vaccinated.  This might be for a number of reasons:  

  • some may be against it from a faith or religious perspective (many vaccines contain gelatine),
  • others might be concerned about the perceived safety of it. They may be fearful of any potential side effects and worry about how quickly they seem to have been developed.

Is it therefore right or ethical for employers to ask employees to be vaccinated before they return to their physical workplace?

In terms of where you currently stand on this as an employer, would you say that it reflects your organisational culture and values?  Would your employees think that it reflects your positive support for their general health and wellbeing?

The situation calls for a fine balance of an employer’s duty of care to keep their people (and those they are in contact with) safe. it is important to respect someone’s wishes and not infringing their human rights.

In fact, many in the legal world are advising employers to be very cautious in this area. This is especially true where there is no valid or justifiable reason for requiring that someone have the vaccine.

Covid vaccinations & the workplace

Covid vaccinations & the workplace - further guidance required?

As the vaccination is not mandatory in law at this time, providing employers have the right Covid-19 protection and safety measures in place and a good proportion of the workforce have the vaccine, is the risk not already significantly minimised?  Do we, at this stage, know that by having this jab that we won’t get Covid-19, or will additional injections be needed?

Is it too much for an employer to state that if an employee isn’t vaccinated that they might face disciplinary action?  What if an employee cannot have the injection due to other health conditions or phobias?

Some roles may require employees to have had the vaccine and some countries may even insist on proof of vaccination before a person can enter.

We believe it is incumbent on employers to help their people make an informed decision about the vaccine by raising awareness: providing them with clear and accurate information, explaining the benefits of the vaccine, sharing the safety requirements pharma companies have had to meet in order for it to be brought to market and dispelling the myths, misconceptions or ‘fake news’.

Further guidance will be provided by the Government around this topic, so we would caution employers to not set plans in stone at this point in the absence of this additional guidance.

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