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Can you force your staff to have the COVID vaccine?

Can you force your staff to have the COVID vaccine?
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Can you force your staff to have the COVID vaccine?
Sophie Forrest - Forrest HR by Sophie Forrest - Forrest HR
Managing Director - Forrest HR

The coronavirus crisis has resulted in an unrivalled number of HR dilemmas for businesses and HR professionals alike, with the most recent dilemma surrounding whether you as an employer can make it mandatory for your employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Like so much of these coronavirus-HR challenges, we are in unchartered territory, which makes it very hard for business owners: get it wrong either way, and you could end up in hot water. Sophie Forrest of Forrest HR offers her expert opinion as to where employers stand on the issue.

A tricky situation for both sides

The first, and perhaps most important thing for everyone to realise, is that this is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. It’s safe to say that there are arguments for both sides of the debate; on the one hand, as an employer, you want the best for your company, your staff and your customers – and your employees being vaccinated against coronavirus is a key way to achieve this objective.

On the other hand, as an employee, being forced to have a vaccine against your wishes is a daunting situation to be in, and employees would be right to maintain that there is no precedent for employers being able to regulate their employees’ medical treatment.

Where does the law stand?

One of the important things to remember about HR dilemmas in our COVID world is that the answers to many of the situations that come to a head are far from clear; instead, as professionals, we’re being forced to understand the law and come up with solutions as we go along.

But one thing that is relatively clear is that there’s no legal basis for employers who wish to force staff to get the vaccine. The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 stipulates that individuals cannot be forced to undergo medical procedures that are against their wishes, and clearly vaccinations fall within this category.

This is not to say, however, that the government could not try to introduce legislation that would mandate vaccinations amongst certain individuals; however, any attempt to do so is likely to be challenged in the courts, largely on the grounds that it could be perceived to be in breach of the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Companies choosing to mandate vaccinations for their employees

This lack of legal footing for forcing employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 has not stopped certain businesses from declaring that they will not employ anyone who opts out of the vaccine, however. Charlie Mullins, the chairman of Pimlico Plumbers, has never been one to shy away from controversial HR topics, and he’s been outspoken on this issue as well; he caused controversy in the middle of January when he declared that he would consider firing employees who refused to get the vaccination. Since then, the company has come out and stated that it did not mean to imply that its employees would be forced to have the vaccination, but that it hoped they would see the benefits in doing so and therefore be compelled to have the vaccination.

Similarly, the National Care Association has been seeking legal advice as to whether care home providers will be able to mandate that their employees get the COVID vaccine to protect care home residents.

Vaccinations for key workers

The care example raises another important question: can employers of key workers or those who come into contact with vulnerable people regularly force their employees to get the vaccine? The National Care Association’s legal enquiry comes in the wake of a report by the Press Association, which revealed that up to a fifth of care home staff will not be getting the vaccine. This statistic is obviously worrying for an industry that seeks to care for the most vulnerable in our society.

Although the rationale for requiring staff to have the vaccine within industries such as the care sector is much more compelling, there is still no legal basis for requiring staff to get the vaccination.

What can you do as an employer?

The most important thing you can do as an employer is to educate your staff. There’s a lot of misinformation going round about the vaccine and, naturally, this is causing somewhat of a panic amongst some.

Forcing your employees to get the vaccine is undoubtedly never going to go down well, and the best practice would be to talk gently to your staff about the many benefits of getting the vaccination and how getting it would also be of benefit to their co-workers, customers and suppliers; it is clear from studies of the Oxford vaccine that it not only reduces the chances of catching Covid-19 and serious illness, but also reduces the chances of transmitting the virus.

There are obvious benefits to you as an employer to have a vaccinated workforce as soon as possible, but realistically, forcing your workforce to get the vaccination is probably going to do more harm than good. Instead, employers should look to rely on gentle encouragement, education and encouraging a tolerant work environment as their tools in encouraging staff to get the COVID vaccine.

Meet the expert

Sophie Forrest runs Forrest HR, which provides HR, training and development and health and wellbeing support to small and medium-sized businesses across the South East and London.

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