The rapid development of vaccines against Covid-19 is starting to raise queries about whether employers might have to consider requiring their employees to have vaccinations when they become available, as a condition of working.
At this stage, there are of course no vaccinations available, but their arrival appears to be imminent. Understandably, they are likely to be aimed at the most vulnerable groups and, presumably, those in key services who are looking after people in those groups. It may therefore be premature to agonise over whether employees could or should be pressurised into accepting vaccinations when they may be reluctant to have them. For now, it is something for employers to think about before they are forced to.
In some sectors, employers will be under duties to third parties, such as the residents of care homes, who may expect those caring for them to be adequately protected against this highly infectious and dangerous virus. There will be workplaces where it may have to be a condition of service that those employed there have been vaccinated. Leaving aside the ‘badge of safety’ that this might represent, some employers might one day find themselves at risk of negligence claims from service users if they have not ensured that their employees are vaccinated – when that becomes a possibility. Similarly, it seems certain that some employees will say that part of providing a safe system of work in the current pandemic must include the employer at least promoting vaccination against Covid-19, even if they do not want to enforce it.
Having said that, employees have their own legal rights. Whilst many employees – perhaps the vast majority – would welcome this protection for themselves and for their families, a significant proportion of employees may have concerns about the efficacy and safety of the vaccinations (which have been developed so quickly) or may have ethical or religious reasons for wishing to avoid them. We have to expect that now familiar sound of conflicting employee rights colliding in the workplace.
Employers are used to dealing with flu vaccinations. Many employees offer these as a perk to their employees (albeit for their own benefit as well), but dealing with new Covid-19 vaccinations might be a different kettle of fish. Most employees have absolute faith in the safety of a standard flu vaccination, but they may quite reasonably question whether any vaccine developed so quickly is something that it is appropriate for an employer to be encouraging, let alone making compulsory (when that becomes a possibility).
As with so many other unlooked-for situations in this extraordinary year, the best advice to employers is to remain primarily concerned with the safety of their workplaces, but to be ready to deal with their employees as individuals who might have a vast range of entirely respectable responses to a conundrum that they, like their employers, have never previously had to face.