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The HR conundrum of Covid vaccinations

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by Dawn Ford

The sun shone on Monday as the UK basked in the news that we were finally on the road to normality, as the Government announced their 4 stage plan for re-opening the economy.  With hiring figures looking up in January, there was all round a lot of cause for optimism to start the week.

But as companies turn their minds to keeping their staff and customers safe as more of them return to workplaces in the coming months, the slightly more thorny issue of having the vaccine (or indeed not having the vaccine) is starting to appear on the desk of HR departments across the country.

Thus far the vaccine roll out has been a success by any measure.  18 million of the UK populace have now had their first vaccine.  And so far the take up of the vaccine has been very high.  But most of those vaccinated so far, are amongst the age group who are likely to be retired.

As we start to move down the vulnerable list and start vaccinating younger and less vulnerable people, this inevitably starts to impact more upon the working population not all of whom may be in favour of having the vaccine.  As employers and clients who use temporary staff or have outsourced service providers on the premises, this raises the question about how you balance an individual’s right to free choice with your duty as an employer or provider of services to protect both your staff and your customers.  We’re all now very familiar with workstation assessments and the need to take a break from using a screen (although how many of us have observed that in lockdown is another matter).  And if you work in an office, there is bound to be a manual handling infographic on a notice board somewhere, telling you to bend your knees when you lift the photocopier paper boxes.  These are all part of the day to day role of an employer to make sure their premises are safe for work and we accept these things now as normal.  But of course an employer’s duty to health, extends to infection, as well as good posture.

As in all health and safety law, there is a need for balance.  There is no absolute duty on employers and companies to prevent employees and contractors from suffering any injury or taking any risk.  Only that each party does its part in ensuring that everyone does what is reasonably necessary to prevent injury and risk as far as practicable.

So how does this sit with vaccinations?  Could an employer or client reasonably state that unless they had a medical reason not to, all employees and contractors on site need to have been vaccinated?  Well, yes, absolutely they could but they couldn’t ask for it in every circumstance.  If later this year (or perhaps they have already), your business decides with you that in fact you won’t return to the office – you’ll work from home permanently – then would it be reasonable for your employer or client to insist you have a vaccine, if it’s just you sitting in your home office?  No, that almost certainly wouldn’t be reasonable.  But if you were being employed as a home help, to go into the houses of vulnerable elderly residents and help with intimate care – would it be reasonable in those circumstances for your employer or client to require you to be vaccinated?  Well, yes it probably would.

Of course there is a long way to go yet before every adult even has the chance of a vaccination – if the Government reaches its 31 July target for all adults having been offered a first dose, it will be the end of October at the earliest before we stand a chance of everyone who wishes to, having taken up both vaccinations.  So whatever choices you think may be ahead of you as employers or clients, you won’t be able to enforce those decisions until the very end of this year at the earliest – clearly no-one can be penalised for not having a vaccine until those vaccines are freely available.  And of course with all vaccinations, there will be some people who because of existing medical conditions or current treatments are advised by doctors not to have a vaccine.

So what’s the best way forward?  As has been the case throughout Covid, good communication is key.  Just as you will have had to tell some employees it isn’t safe for them to return to the office yet, no matter how much they may want to, while concurrently supporting those who feel scared and vulnerable and unsure about returning, so it will be with vaccinations.  Some employees will be at the front of the queue.  Others through fear, lack of understanding or misinformation may be set against.  No-one thinks it amiss that as employers we give information about how to lift heavy boxes.  So why not also the reports from AstraZeneca or Pfizer-Biontech about their study data?  That too is the provision of factual information to allow individuals to make good choices and in so doing protect them and you. 

Of course no route to keeping people safe ever has one answer..  Your MD tweeting their smiling image while having their inoculation might well be more effective for some.  But starting the process now, of ensuring that employees have access to good factual information to allow them to make informed choices, will certainly make your life a lot easier towards the end of the year, if you’re considering a mandatory vaccination policy.