Can employers require employees to take the Covid-19 vaccination?
According to a BBC report, Pimlico Plumbers (Pimlico), a large plumbing firm in London, plans to rewrite all of its worker’ contracts to require them to be vaccinated against coronavirus.
The firm has since clarified that it will not be forcing existing members of staff to be vaccinated. However, once vaccinations are readily available, it will make having a vaccine a condition of employment for all those able to have the vaccine safely. Pimlico has expressed its rationale for this as follows:
“What is the difference between a vaccination against a virus that can kill and a hard hat on a building site that may prevent death from a heavy object falling on a worker’s head?”
That analysis focusses on an employer’s obligations in relation to the health and safety of its own staff. The requirement that staff vaccinate could equally be argued (in many professions and trades) as being necessary to protect the health and safety of its customers.
Given Pimlico’s line of work, its employees will be required to visit multiple homes every day. That high level of exposure could put Pimlico’s employees at a higher risk of contracting coronavirus than other professions, and put those customers of Pimlico who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus at risk.
On that basis, it could be argued that requiring its employees to be vaccinated (where it is safe to do so) is a “reasonable instruction” as refusing to do so may put both its employees and vulnerable customers at unnecessary risk. The same argument could potentially be made for other businesses that deal with vulnerable individuals, such as care homes, medical practices and hospitals.
Consultation with employees before introducing any policy making vaccinations compulsory will be important. This is in order to both: ensure maximum buy-in amongst staff; and enhance the reasonableness of an employer’s case to take formal action against any employees who subsequently refuse to accept the vaccination.
If an employee refuses a “reasonable instruction” from management, then there are potentially fair grounds for dismissal. However, employers should still ensure a fair process is followed and consider the nature of the employee’s objections to taking the vaccine.
Employers should always give thought to whether there is any other way of achieving the desired health and safety objective if an employee refuses to take the vaccine. This is especially the case in circumstances where an employee objects on grounds that it is indirectly discriminatory in connection with a protected characteristic they hold (such as age, disability, sex, pregnancy, region or belief).