The UK has become the first country in the world to approve the mass use of a Covid vaccine and immunisations could start as early as next week. But a vocal anti-vaccination movement could threaten to undermine their efficacy if people refuse in large numbers. Does the vaccination debate pose problems for employers?
With positive news about Covid-19 vaccines emerging every day, it may have come as a surprise to some that the NHS plans to enlist a team of celebrities and “influencers” to encourage people to take up the vaccine when it arrives.
Ethical dilemma: Can employers insist on Covid-19 vaccinations?
According to reports, ministers are working with NHS England to draw up a list of “sensible” famous faces amid fears that misinformation around the side-effects of inoculations or distrust in the government’s intentions will stop large numbers of people from getting them.
Because vaccines’ effectiveness depends on a large proportion of the population receiving them, sending out a positive message around the benefits is crucial. Even those who are hesitant about having a vaccine might find that their decision counts when it comes to building public immunity.
On social media, memes and conspiracy theories abound that the vaccines currently undergoing approval will: modify our DNA; that Microsoft founder Bill Gates will use them to implant trackable microchips into our systems; or that the vaccination programme is part of a secret plan to control the population, among others.
For employers, it’s clear that it’s not only the health impact of coronavirus that has had an impact on their relationships with employees – it’s also the growing polarity of opinion on how the pandemic is being managed. For some this is demonstrated by some through anti-lockdown protests; others it’s passionate disagreement with vaccination. But how should HR and management deal with any potential fall-out?
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat recently told reporters that he could “certainly see the day” when managers would be able to bar people from coming into the office unless they had received the Covid vaccine. Furthermore, newly appointed vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi recently hinted that pubs and other venues could gain the power to turn down customers who refused to have the jab, requiring proof that they have been vaccinated before they can come in.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has since denied that any such “vaccine passport” plan was in development, but that’s not to say that – as workforces begin to return to the office on a more widespread basis – there won’t be some scrutiny into “who has and who hasn’t” received the vaccination.
And while the UK government has so far ruled out making it mandatory, Denmark has just rushed through an emergency coronavirus law that would give health authorities the right to enforce testing and treatment – including a policy of mandatory vaccination.
While it remains recommended rather than compulsory in the UK, employers won’t be able to impose a blanket instruction for staff to have the vaccine, or penalise them for not having it, according to Andrew Willis, head of legal at Croner. “Whether employers would be able to ban people from coming into work who refuse to have it would ultimately be very case-specific,” he says.
It takes careful management as it’s a febrile time and there are lots of tensions bubbling away.” – Esther Langdon, Vedder Price
“On the one hand, there may be some industry sectors that may implement a requirement for its staff to have the vaccine for safety reasons. For example, operators in health and social care will likely want to reduce the chances of a further Covid outbreak in their workplaces and see the vaccine as a critical method for doing this. That said, there is no confirmation that any sector is currently considering this.”
If employees become combative about their anti-vaccination views, it’s important to tread carefully, says Esther Langdon, an associate at law firm Vedder Price. “If you have a team and one person refuses, your duty as a manager is to ensure there is no detriment to them as a result of that. It takes careful management as it’s a febrile time and there are lots of tensions bubbling away.”
To some extent it will be a case of balancing an employer’s duty of care from a health and safety point of view with that employee’s right to hold a belief. Organisations can create their own positive messaging around the benefits of vaccination and position it as a wellbeing benefit, she adds. “Start a dialogue sooner rather than later, perhaps considering an awareness campaign. The flu jab is a useful analogy; we wouldn’t expect an employer to mandate that but they could recommend it and pay for it.”
Discussing vaccination could be part of the overall return to work conversation as restrictions ease in 2021, says Simon Robinson of Robinson Ralph Employment Law. “Most of this can be sorted with dialogue,” he says. “If you talk to individuals about whether they agree to certain return to work conditions and they don’t agree, you ascertain their specific concerns and demonstrate what is being done to ensure their safety.”
In the unlikely case where an employee refuses to come into the workplace because colleagues have not been vaccinated, managers could carefully consider a number of routes, he adds. “If an employee cannot do their work from home, there is the option of offering unpaid leave or asking the employee to take holiday, but those would only be short term solutions when their underlying concern is about other individuals not being vaccinated. It would be unwise for employers to instruct staff to have a vaccine administered to them and dismiss them if they don’t.”
Listen to concerns
Whatever views HR or managers hold around the anti-vaccination movement, it’s important to recognise that for some, this will be a deeply held view. “Listen to people’s concerns, they’re not expressing their views just to be awkward, even if they are based on propaganda,” advises David Liddle, CEO of mediation consultancy The TCM Group. “That way you’ve got a better chance of negotiating an outcome rather than trying to apply a rule that covers everyone.”
Liddle advises that organisations refer back to policies to ensure they are robust but flexible. “Policies should reflect the values of your company and be up-to-date and person-centred, rather than creating added levels of confusion,” he says. Managers that allow the debate to happen in “a respectful way” will have a better chance of resolving any conflict. “The issue itself may be irreconcilable but you can manage the nature and tone of the debate,” Liddle adds.
With strategies in many organisations to keep much of the workforce remote well into next year, the “should we vaccinate” debate could be moot anyway. “You could argue that, if most people are at home anyway, what does it matter?” says Landgon at Vedder Price. “It’s a personal choice and an employer may not necessarily need to get involved, particularly if the effectiveness of the vaccine is very high.”
Transparency and dialogue are likely to be the most effective strategies in dealing with any workplace conflicts over vaccination, she concludes. “The focus should be on education and understanding, and employers can start that now.”
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The speed that vaccines have moved through trials to roll-out has raised red flags for doctors, scientists and, as you note, large numbers of the general public.
Many have raised valid and important questions regarding both the efficacy and the safety of the vaccines.
Most of these well-informed but cautious citizens do not fit into easy categorisation as being ‘anti-vaxxer’ or part of a ‘movement’ against vaccines. Far from it.
As human resources professionals grappling with these emerging realities, we need to be aware of these complex issues, and not be bundled into the kind of generalisation that, experience shows, creates more problems than it solves.
I recommend that publications such as this avoid expressions such as ‘anti-vaxxer’ or ‘anti-vaccination movement’, specifically in this regard.
Finally, it is clear that employers need to consider their duty of care to employees with respect to the risk of adverse reaction to these novel vaccines – potentially severe illness, permanent disability or death – specifically where the employer has sought to promote, encourage, incentivise or coerce employees to be vaccinated.
I’m afraid that isn’t true – Most doctors who are disease specialists do not have concerns. I work in a hospital with the medicines safety team and they have been all over this and would have refused if it had not passed very specific risk testing because – since Thalidomide. Speed of the vaccines is because for the first time those organisations have been able to shelve all their other work and concentrate on one drug – an impossible task during normal times.
The thing to consider is risk assess the vaccines. The death toll of 2+ milion vs zero vaccine deaths despite millions vaccinated. Most people are simply not well informed and its pandering to popularism to say they are.
what a load of rubbish…..the death rate amongst care home residents ho have been vaccinated has increased….
Brilliant response, thank you for taking the time to write this!
Thank you for a balanced, professional response. Managing genuine concerns from many angles is likely to be a significant challenge for managers and HR leaders. I am concerned that some employees will feel marginalised and unable to raise their concerns, so it’s important to create an environment open to all respectful dialogue.
Yes I agree with you 100% . Good professional comments. Most of the uk wont have the vaccine. The government is trying to control everything and every 1.
I am a nurse in a large University Hospital in the US. A colleague believes that Covid is a manufactured crisis created by the government controlled media to clamp down on civil rights.
This person only wears a mask when managers are likely to see him and refuses to do basic hygiene practices (wipe surfaces after patients leave an area or even wash his hands!)
I must work closely with this person so open conflicts would create a hostile work environment.
The behavior of this person cannot be changed due to his odd worldview which is not based on science, but created by social media.
How would HR deal with this? Should I report him to management? I still have to work with this person and he’s unlikely to be fired. Thank you
What were his basic hygiene rules and also the hospital hygiene rules before covid?
If he won’t wash his hands he is already in breach of basic infection protocol and should definitely be reported.
If data on 100 RANDOM souls of the 400000 purported dead from Covid were picked out and
scrutinized, not 10 would have died of it. I’d bet my skinny ass. Ha, and virtually zero flu deaths in the past year. How’s that? Myself, 73 years old with 5 stents in my heart, will take the Covid over the vaccine. HUG ME! And have a nice day.
I’m not having the vaccine because I don’t want it . Why are the government trying to control the world what about the human rights that prisoners have .
The amount of ill informed selfish excuses for human beings in these comments is staggering. Horrible people. Just get the jab so we can all move on with our lives. Stop being so pathetic.
Wake up people!! Covid 19 is a man made bio weapon owned with patents and deliberately released on the world. LOOK IT UP!! Fortunately it only has a 0.26% death rate! The death numbers we keep hearing about are just being taken from regular flue deaths and other causes like suicide! The mask are completely useless and only used for control and dividing us! This is the 1st DNA changing vaccine that they want inside of us real bad for some BS reason! You really think people like Bill Gates really cares about your health and well being? He’s been plaguing his own pc software with virus after virus since it came out and now ready to do the same with us and promises to have phones placed within the body by 2025! They want to erase our God given choice of FREE WILL and this so called vaccine is only the beginning… WAKE UP!