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Vaccinating against Covid-19: considerations for HR teams

As the nation focuses its attention on the fast and effective delivery of Covid-19 vaccinations, Ashleigh Webber examines how law firms might approach workforce inoculation.

The issue of Covid-19 vaccination is a contentious one. While law firms will want to get behind the national effort to ensure as many people are inoculated as possible – perhaps in the hope this will allow them to return to some semblance of ‘normal’ – there are numerous practical, ethical and legal challenges they will need to bear in mind.

Earlier this month, London-based Pimlico Plumbers hit the headlines for suggesting that it would include the requirement to have a Covid-19 vaccination in its employment contracts. This drew widespread criticism, with many pointing out that not even the government can insist that everybody is vaccinated.

Meanwhile, travel firm Saga has said all cruise passengers will be required to be vaccinated when its trips resume later this year. It is not clear whether this requirement will extend to staff.

It will be a while until the entire workforce will be offered a Covid-19 jab by the NHS, especially younger people not in public-facing roles. HR teams in law firms are unlikely to have a vaccination policy at this stage – many told People in Law that they were monitoring the situation, but had not yet formalised an approach.

Staff will approach vaccinations differently. While many are keen to receive their jab, some employees may have religious, medical or ethical reasons for declining a vaccination. This could have consequences for business continuity and travel.

Mandatory vaccinations?

Elizabeth McEneny, a senior consultant in the employment law team at CM Murray, says it is unlikely that law firms will require their staff to have Covid-19 jabs.

“For a plethora of reasons, it is very unlikely that law firms will impose mandatory vaccination policies for their staff,” she says. “Law firms are best placed to appreciate the multitude of legal issues that surround any such policy, ranging from possible discrimination claims and human rights issues to careful handling of personal data.”

It is likely that firms will try to establish employees’ preferred ways of working before deciding whether a mass return to the office is necessary and whether vaccination will be needed to do so, suggests McEneny.

“Law firms have largely adapted well to homeworking, so in many cases there is no urgent need to return to the office, which makes vaccination less vital to their business model,” she says.

“[They] are likely to adopt an approach of education and encouragement, which historically has been found to result in a higher vaccination take-up than government imposed mandatory policies.”

Education

Issuing a strong message to staff about the benefits of mass vaccination will also help employers meet their obligations to provide a safe place of work. Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to take all reasonably practicable steps to reduce workplace risks – and this includes reducing exposure to Covid-19, possibly through the encouragement of vaccine uptake.

Leo Martin, director of ethical business advisors GoodCorporation, suggests that firms should ensure staff are aware of the pros and cons of vaccinations.

“The vaccine will only successfully stop the spread of the virus with the widest possible take-up, so there is an ethical duty on employers to ensure that accurate information about the vaccine and its benefits are clearly communicated to encourage maximum participation,” says Martin. “It may also be advisable to counter any disinformation about the vaccine as this can promote misplaced fear and impede the vaccine’s success.”

Employees who refuse

But there is little firms will be able to do if an employee refuses to get one, especially if this reason for refusal is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Some religious groups disapprove of vaccinations, while other groups – such as vegans – may object to being vaccinated because of the use of animal testing in vaccine development or because the shot may contain animal-derived ingredients. Last year, an employment tribunal ruled that “ethical veganism” met the tests required for it to be considered a philosophical belief.

However, if an employee refuses a vaccine and protection is deemed necessary for their job – for example, if they are frequently in contact with the public and they cannot do their job from home – their rejection may be considered refusal of a reasonable management request, and disciplinary action may necessary.

Whatever an employer’s stance on vaccinations, they must tread carefully to avoid alienating their workforce and creating an unnecessary burden on employee relations.

Ken Matos, director of people science at employee experience company CultureAmp, says: “The Covid-19 vaccine is an emotional subject for many people. Employers should focus on providing all parties with full and equal access to the science so that employees are making their individual vaccination decisions based on real facts rather than fear inducing misinformation.

“Demanding that employees have a vaccination is easy. Ensuring that they emerge from the pandemic trusting their employer to have their best interests at heart is somewhat harder. Losing that trust could be detrimental to the business in the long-term.”

With the government pledging in its Covid-19 Vaccines Delivery Plan that all adults will be offered a Covid-19 jab by the autumn, it would be wise for HR teams to consider what their firm’s stance on vaccination will be and whether they need a policy in place over the coming months.

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