April 2021

Businesses are mapping their way out of lockdown. Many people hope they can get back to the workplace soon. But what's the legal position when it comes to the Covid vaccine?

Can an employer force staff to be vaccinated? In most cases, the answer is "no". But if unvaccinated people can't do the job properly, there may be no choice. Examples include care workers looking after the elderly or employees traveling overseas as part of their work.

Managers need to think about what is reasonable to expect from their staff. For example, can staff work from home if they haven't had the vaccine?

The Government at this stage isn't forcing public sector workers to have the vaccination. Even the NHS hasn't yet required doctors and nurses to be vaccinated.

Safe workplaces

All employers can urge staff to have the jab. And it should be part of any risk assessment as people return to the office. It might help guide employers plan which people can come back to the workplace and when.

We don't yet fully understand if people can spread the virus after having the vaccine. The vaccine should be just one part of making the workplace safe. Space between workers, face coverings and handwashing should continue, along with extra cleaning and disinfecting.

Workers who say 'no'

Workers could refuse the vaccination for a range of reasons, because:

  • it's not in their contract
  • it would breach their human rights
  • employers should look at alternatives
  • they can work from home.

People who lose their job after refusing to have a vaccination may be able to claim unfair dismissal. But those with less than two years’ service or on casual contracts may not be able to make a claim.

Other grounds for refusing the vaccine include:

  • medical reasons
  • pregnancy or wanting to start a family
  • breast-feeding
  • religious reasons or personal beliefs.

Employers' responsibilities

Employers can't discriminate against staff who refuse to be vaccinated. And they should have vaccine policies in place. Businesses that plan to record which staff have had the vaccine must get permission from staff first.

Some businesses may choose to make getting the vaccine part of their workers' contracts.

Employers should get legal advice about changing contracts. While current staff should not have to sign new contracts if they don't want to, new employees may be happy to have the vaccination as a condition of employment.

It might be simpler for some employers to introduce a system of workplace testing. Staff who cannot work from home could be asked to produce a negative test result before going in to work. Businesses have been able to register for free lateral flow tests. However employers must have good reasons for asking staff to test and they must also think about data protection rules. Workplace testing is only one part of other health and safety measures that should be adopted by employers.

More help

Visit Acas for more advice about vaccines in the workplace or contact a legal adviser.

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