Covid-19 Vaccine and the Return to the Workplace

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to major global business interruption with employers and employees adapting to new ways of working and living. It is anticipated that vaccines will play a significant role in helping to drive down infection rates and allow a return to some form of normality. The roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in Northern Ireland has seen around 1.1 million first doses administered to the adult population to date. As a result of this significant development, many employers are keen to welcome staff back to the office after, in most cases, a long period of working from home (“WFH”). However, understandably, employees and employers alike will have considerable concerns regarding any potential return to the workplace.

From an employer perspective, all employers have a duty of care to their employees as outlined in the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. However whilst ensuring a safe workplace is provided for their employees is a statutory duty, there is no statutory basis for forcing employers to take any vaccine. In fact, the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 expressly provides that individuals should not be compelled to undergo any mandatory medical treatment including vaccination. Whilst in England they are introducing a mandatory vaccination policy for care-home workers, the Health Minister for NI has confirmed that in light of the significant level of uptake for the vaccine amongst care-home workers in NI, this will not be the approach adopted in Northern Ireland. Therefore, if employers insist on imposing mandatory vaccination policies this could give rise to claims of unfair/constructive dismissal and discrimination. Ultimately, it remains a personal choice as to whether or not any individual wishes to take the vaccine.

Employers must be mindful that there is a heightened sense of anxiety amongst individuals in light of the ongoing pandemic and this subject requires careful and sensitive management. A less risky approach would be for employers to consider introducing a Covid-19 vaccination policy which encourages employees to take up the offer of a vaccine against Covid-19, without making it a compulsory requirement. We can tailor a suitable policy to meet your requirements.

Employers may consider vaccination as part of their updated risk assessments and ensure it includes alternative safety measures to receiving the vaccine such as social distancing, hygiene procedures, and ventilation. Employers must also be cautious when storing employee vaccination data as this is sensitive information and due regard must be given to data protection requirements.  Any reason for an employer to record and store this information must be clear and compelling as well as being communicated to employees. Obviously this data should not be shared with third parties.

Should you require advice or assistance in relation to any of the above please do get in touch with Jan Cunningham or David Mitchell in our Employment Team.