Tread lightly over workplace vaccination rules

Peter Done

More than 50m people in the UK have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with an estimated 92.5 per cent of the adult population in the UK testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies during November 2021.

Various studies suggest that the vaccine is between 65 per cent and 95 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic Covid, yet vaccinations remain something of a divisive topic with a sizeable number of people still reluctant to get the jab. 

In families and friendships groups, on social media and at work, there is often debate between those who have freely opted to get the Covid jab and those that would prefer not to.

And with the new Omicron variant making headway in the UK, the debate is becoming even more heated now that some Covid measures are being reinstated.

With face masks now compulsory in certain areas again, self-isolation mandatory for everyone who has been in close contact with the new variant – regardless of vaccination status – and the return of the red list, people are starting to question whether there should be different rules for those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t, and if distancing themselves from those who are unvaccinated will help avoid any risk of catching Covid.

We have seen segregated areas start to crop up around the world, from Italy banning unvaccinated people from travelling by plane or train, to New Zealand’s new traffic light system meaning that people who are vaccinated will have a higher level of freedom from those who are not when cases are high. 

These may be considered draconian measures, but could we see them coming into the workplace?

We have started to get calls from business owners looking for advice as to whether they can have separate areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.

From a safety perspective, there could be good reason to consider this. In theory, there would be far less risk of transmission within the team, leading to less periods of self-isolation and absences for HR to deal with.

In sectors where vaccination is mandatory, such as care homes and frontline healthcare staff, it will soon be a legal obligation that only employees who are fully vaccinated or have a certified medical exemption can be around patients.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to take all reasonably practical steps to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their staff, but forcing employees to get the vaccine in sectors that are not directly associated with patient care could trigger human rights implications. And treating employees differently based on their vaccination status could leave you at risk of a discrimination claim.

So perhaps not surprisingly, there’s no clear cut answer here.

Claims and company culture

While some may have legitimate concerns about spending their working days in close proximity to someone who chooses to be unvaccinated, enforced separation based on vaccination status will inevitably have its issues.