Can UK employers make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory?

The UK vaccination programme is well underway. Every day we are getting closer to offering a vaccine to all adults in the UK. This is a gargantuan task for the Government and, of course, for the medical staff across the country. Where does this leave the employers? Can an employer force their staff to have the Covid-19 vaccine?

Making vaccination compulsory is a risky line to take. Employers need to be very careful when deciding how to handle this. 

The Government has said it is not planning on making the vaccine mandatory. If employers wish to go down this route and make it mandatory, they should make it a contractual requirement. This would imply a change in the terms and conditions of employment of staff, which requires the employee’s agreement. If the employee disagrees, the employer may choose to terminate employment and offer re-engagement on new terms or impose a unilateral change of the contract. Both approaches come with risks. However, before going down that route, it is absolutely vital to carefully consider if it is reasonable to make vaccinations mandatory in the first place. In some sectors, like the health sector, it would be seen as reasonable to ask staff to have it. The same applies to care homes. 

If the employer makes vaccinations mandatory, this may lead to potential tribunal claims of unfair or constructive dismissal if the employee is dismissed or resigns over the issue. The employer would need to show that the instruction was reasonable and that the employee’s refusal was unreasonable, and that a fair process took place. This is not an easy task unless staff work directly with high-risk, vulnerable people. 

Employers may put in place nonmandatory guidance about the vaccine and encourage their employees to have it. In any case, employers should not forget about the other protective measures that need to stay in place in the workplace to minimise the risk of Covid-19. Updating their Covid-19 risk assessments on an ongoing basis as the pandemic unfolds is absolutely necessary. 

Some staff may not want to have the vaccine because of legitimate health concerns. Confidentiality is important to avoid any stigma against staff who are not vaccinated.

Employers should also consider the wider wellbeing of their staff when approaching them about vaccinations. We’ve all been through this collective traumatic experience, and anxiety has reached concerning levels. This needs careful and sensitive management in the workplace. 

Whilst we are all looking forward to going back to normal, this won’t happen overnight. Let’s not forget it’s been a year since our first lockdown. It’s a long time to live under uncertainty and fear. Vaccine or no vaccine, our staff’s mental health should become a priority. It may also help with the vaccine uptake.

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