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Can employers require staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

With many people returning to offices and not all workers having received their COVID-19 vaccine yet, it is not unusual for workers to be worried about their return.

According to a survey of 5,000 workers across various sectors, half of UK workers expect their employers to demand vaccine passports before they can return to their workplace, and 17% have had a conversation about their company’s policy on vaccines.

A poll of 2000 workers, conducted by Glassdoor, also found that 56% thought there should be a requirement for staff to have had their COVID vaccine before returning to the office.

Opinions are split

While a third think it would be reckless of their employer not to introduce a policy on vaccinations, almost two thirds don’t agree it would be the right thing to do and would be far too controlling of the employer.

Different industries fair differently, and 44% of hospitality workers agreed mandatory vaccines were a good idea, compared to 24% of office workers and 21% of key workers. When it comes to office workers 47% say they have concerns over using shared facilities such as lifts, kitchens and toilets with other companies who might have different views on the vaccine. On the other hand 80% say that they trust their employer to keep a workplace clean and tidy.

Legal Risks

Without official government advice or law on the circumstances around whether COVID-19 vaccines could be mandatory for employers, employers should be cautious with enforcing mandatory vaccines for employees.

There is also a risk that discrimination claims could be raised against you if an employee declines the vaccine based on medical or religious grounds and is penalised or dismissed. There are many justified reasons why someone may not be vaccinated and employees should be mindful of their obligations under the Equality Act before making any serious decisions.

There also may be a risk of workers compensation claims from employees who experience adverse side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine if the vaccine is taken at the employer’s direction, in circumstances where the vaccines is not otherwise mandatory

However, it could be argued there are also legal risks of not making the vaccine mandatory as employers have obligations regrading health and safety in the workplace, and those obligations extend not only to employees, but to other visitors or person present in the workplace.

Once a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, technically the best way to ensure health and safety in the workplace is to ensure all employees are vaccinated. There could also be the potential for constructive dismissal claims by vaccinated employees, possibly claiming they had to resign because their employer wouldn’t ensure all their colleagues were vaccinated, putting them at risk.

Main takeaways

There is no one size fits answer, and individual workplaces should carry out risk assessments on the implications of both mandatory and non-mandatory approaches to vaccination. Employer expectations should be clearly set out in an appropriate policy.

It is a very sensitive area and not only should employers be discussing what office life will look like this year, but also what the future holds in years to come.