You've probably seen and heard a lot about the Covid-19 vaccination recently, particularly in relation to the battle between NHS workers and the UK Government. But have you considered how it may affect your business?
As employees are encouraged to return to the office, the proportion of staff receiving the injection has become a growing concern. However, business owners and employees alike are often uncertain about their legal position on the matter, including whether an employer can make it compulsory.
In this article, LawBite answers the key questions surrounding the vaccine for UK business owners and explores why you might encourage your staff to book their jab by adopting a vaccination policy.
Is the Covid-19 vaccination mandatory?
Current rules in England make it mandatory for people working in a Care Quality Commission-registered care home to have the Covid-19 vaccine. Plans for this mandate to be extended to frontline health and social care workers were revoked in January due to fears it would lead to staff shortages.
Workers outside of social care environments are not compelled to have the vaccine, so this guidance focuses on those SME owners whose businesses aren't covered by mandatory vaccination.
If the vaccine's not mandatory, do I need to address it?
On 12th July 2021, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA, formerly Public Health England) published a Covid-19 vaccination guide for employers. The guide confirms that vaccination is the best way to protect people from coronavirus, as this reduces the risk of experiencing symptoms, spreading the virus, or becoming seriously ill. It recommends that company bosses encourage vaccination on the grounds that it will reduce staff illness and absenteeism. In doing so, businesses can return to a more normal way of life.
Maintaining a steady workforce is crucial to getting the economy up and running again. It also leads to reduced sick pay, fewer redundancies, and improved mental health among staff.
In addition, employers have a legal duty to consider health and safety issues in the workplace, including where your employees come into contact with others. Aside from the usual considerations such as ventilation, spacing out desks, and sanitizing stations, you might consider whether the vaccine should be made mandatory for your SME, taking into account all the risks of imposing such a condition.
How should I approach the subject with my staff?
According to Acas, employers should take the following advice to support their staff and business:
- Encourage staff to get their jab by informing them of the benefits, but don’t force anyone against their wishes.
- Share helpful information like the government’s latest advice, the location of local walk-in centres, and any measures put in place to help staff access appointments such as paid leave.
- Hold conversations with staff who are vulnerable to find out how you can support them (including reasonable adjustments for those who have a disability).
- Consider offering staff their usual rate of pay if they take sick leave due to side effects, rather than Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), as well as paid time off for their appointment.
- Reinforce that they can raise their concerns without prejudicing their employment with you.
Do I need a workplace policy on vaccinations?
A policy is an effective way of informing staff about the 'rules' of the business. Agreeing on a vaccination policy that works for you and your employees allows you to keep control over internal messaging, ensures that expectations are clear, and gives you the ability to amend the company's position if necessary.
Therefore, a vaccine policy could help your SME cope with the economic effect of Covid-19 and ensure that all staff know of and adhere to the same rules - unless they are exempt. It can also help your SME to show that it's treating staff equally and does not discriminate, whilst at the same time highlighting what needs to be done to assist others in the workplace.
What should a vaccine policy include?
Your company policy should cover the following:
- Who the rule applies to. You must establish if the policy applies to all employees, including volunteers, interns, consultants, and contractors.
- Who is responsible for the policy. Decide who will be responsible for creating the policy, overseeing its implementation, and reviewing in the future.
- Whether it’s voluntary. Employees need to know if the rules are a condition of their employment.
- Information about the vaccine. Explain why you’re bringing the policy in, and share helpful information about the vaccine, such as its benefits and side effects.
- Steps for keeping Covid-secure. Include any other health and safety measures in force, such as wearing masks, keeping the workplace ventilated, and hand washing.
- Any incentives. This could be issuing paid time off to get the vaccine or other forms of encouragement.
- Any exceptions. There are several situations where pressuring staff to get the vaccine could be discriminatory. This includes those who are medically exempt.
- What counts as proof of vaccination. If you require proof, outline what evidence is acceptable.
- The confidentiality measures you’ll take. Remember, this is sensitive information and record-keeping must align with your Data Protection policy.
- Details about policy updates. Confirm if the company is permitted to make future changes to the policy and why.
Can I reduce sick pay depending on vaccination status?
Several well-known brands have cut sick pay for unvaccinated staff who are self-isolating, raising the question of whether to follow suit for other companies.
All qualifying employees who have tested positive or are self-isolating are entitled to SSP, regardless of vaccination status. Any additional sick pay entitlement can be set out in the terms of the employee’s employment contract or paid at the employer's discretion. In the latter case, employers are permitted to choose whether they offer this sum to their unvaccinated staff. However, businesses must be aware of the serious risk of discrimination and constructive dismissal claims when offering benefits to some employees but not others. You should therefore take legal advice before committing to this approach.
Whatever position your company takes on the vaccine, it’s essential to create an open dialogue with your staff. Before enforcing new policies, try holding internal consultations with your team to find out their concerns and resolve differences informally. You may also want to seek independent legal advice for your small business.
About the Author
Kim Knox is an experienced employment lawyer at LawBite, having worked with a large regional law firm for several years on a wide range of employment and HR matters including contracts of employment, settlement agreements and disciplinary procedures.