As a small business employer or HR manager, you may be yearning for the day Covid no longer impacts your employees.
But with case numbers still high, workers are continuing to go off sick with Covid symptoms.
Vaccinations remain the key tool for keeping people at work, and Covid vaccination policies are an important part of many small companies’ efforts to help employees avoid the virus or reduce the intensity of symptoms.
Covid vaccines are a complex, sensitive subject, so having a policy helps avoid disputes and confusion by clarifying your company’s stance on the issues, and explaining your expectations of managers and employees.
Given the sensitivities involved, you should take care with how you create and implement a policy to make sure it helps the workforce in the way you intend, and avoids legal issues (although it’s worth getting legal and employment advice on this).
This article will advise you on the current situation in the UK around vaccinations, how vaccination policies help your business, and how to implement one.
Here’s what we cover:
Current situation around vaccinations for workers
According to government data from 1 April 2022, vaccinated people continue to be less likely to catch Covid. For example, protection against symptomatic Covid was over 90% two weeks after receiving a booster vaccine.
But vaccination rates vary significantly by occupation.
Health professionals (85%) were most likely to have received three jabs, while those in elementary trades (58%) were the least likely to have had three.
Vaccines are not currently mandated in the UK.
Between 11 November 2021 and 15 March 2022, vaccination was compulsory for all those working in care homes in England.
Since 15 March 2022, that rule ended and it was no longer compulsory.
The government also reversed proposals for mandated jabs for frontline health and social care workers from April 2022.
However, while it’s not a legal obligation, vaccination is considered a professional responsibility.
UK employers in all sectors are still therefore strongly encouraged by the government and medical experts to ensure their employees are vaccinated against Covid.
What is a Covid vaccination policy?
A vaccination policy is a document you can create and implement to outline your stance towards employees getting a vaccine, for example, whether you offer them time off or incentives.
It also covers other vaccine-related matters such as how you deal with recruitment, exemptions, refusals, and private data.
How a Covid vaccination policy can help your workforce
Simon Bloch is employment law partner at JMW Solicitors.
He says: “Covid vaccination policies can help SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] and their workforces because encouraging vaccine uptake protects workers and their colleagues from potential serious illness, and contributes to the wider public health effort.”
In customer-facing sectors, it helps protect your customers, too.
“Vaccination policies help SMEs fulfil their obligations to reduce workplace risks and take reasonable care of their employees’ health and safety,” says Simon.
“Also, if most of the workforce is vaccinated, there should be fewer infections and absences from work, allowing a smoother running of operations.”
Keeping a vaccination policy and retaining any communications encouraging vaccination could help your defence if any employees complain that you have taken inadequate steps to protect their health.
Reporting regulations list Covid as a reportable disease for employers, so keeping the disease to a minimum among your workforce should also help reduce this reporting burden.
While most employees welcome vaccination, some may be unable or reluctant to get a jab.
This could be for reasons such as medical status or religious beliefs, but it could also be due to a fear or disbelief about vaccinations generally.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), it is mainly the government and health services’ role to combat such vaccine hesitancy.
However, employers also play a key role in helping persuade people to have vaccinations, as they are gatekeepers for their employees’ health.
Can I really not make vaccinations mandatory?
Some experts say it may be possible to mandate vaccinations among employees if you have a very strong reason.
But Vicki Field, director of Field HR, says: “Now the NHS are no longer required to have compulsory vaccinations, I cannot see any justification for mandating them.
“Companies do not mandate any other vaccination such as flu or MMR. You need to treat Covid the same way.
“I would, however, include in the policy that, while there is no obligation have a Covid jab, the employer encourages them to.
“Include that you will, for example, support the rollout of the vaccination programme by providing accurate communications and even paid time off.”
Simon adds: “Imposing mandatory vaccinations without express agreement would be unlawful and could give rise to discrimination allegations, negative publicity, as well as associated issues recruiting and retaining staff.
“It could also be a breach of human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Any employer that dismissed an individual for refusing to get the vaccine may be exposed to claims of unfair dismissal.
“SMEs should therefore ensure they can justify any dismissals and follow a fair process.”
People who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons are protected under disability laws.
In this case, employers may protect their health through other steps such as more regular testing, support for remote working or considering different roles.
There’s a balancing act here, though, as you also have a duty to protect the health of your other workers.
If an employee refuses to get a vaccine but their role means this endangers others, you may need to find alternatives such as another, more remote, role in the firm.
If there are no alternatives, you may, as a last resort, have to dismiss them. In such situations, legal advice is highly recommended.
Your policy could state your overall position on this, while making it clear such cases need to be dealt with on an individual basis.
What else to include in your vaccination policy
Other factors to consider when writing your vaccination policy include:
- General guidance, education and encouragement on vaccinations
- What leave you offer for employees to get vaccinated
- Any other incentives or benefits
- What proof, if any, you expect employees to provide on their vaccination status (see below)
- The criteria for exempting or excluding anyone from the policy
- How the policy will apply to agency staff, contractors, visitors and other third parties.
Your policy may also include some guidelines about how to deal with disputes, hesitancy or refusal.
If an employee voices vaccine-related concerns, individual discussions with a trusted staff member may allay their fears.
But employees shouldn’t be pressured into agreeing to a vaccination.
Whether people are vaccinated or not is an emotive subject that can be divisive, so you may want to ask employees not to enquire about colleagues’ vaccination status, or not to discuss it in the workplace.
What happens to employees’ vaccination data?
Gathering health data is another potential minefield. Start by telling employees what data you plan to gather as part of the vaccination policy and what you plan to do with it.
According to the CIPD, employers can ask if employees have been vaccinated or not, providing they have a good reason – for example, protecting the safety of colleagues.
This information is sensitive personal health data and employers must comply with the data protection rules such as the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and Data Protection Act 2018.
Under this legislation, processing personal health data such as vaccine records is prohibited unless it’s necessary and proportionate to keep employees and the public safe.
For example, it could be necessary to comply with employment law, and your employer’s health and safety duties.
If processing vaccination data, make sure you also have a policy document and data risk assessment that covers the relevant requirements.
Never collect personal data you don’t need.
5 steps to implement your vaccination policy
1. Conduct a risk-benefit assessment
Start by conducting a risk-benefit assessment of employee vaccinations and how they could impact your company.
This will help inform whether you need a policy and if so, what its goals and scope should be.
2. Create a vaccination policy business case
Set out the ethical framework and business case for why you need a policy.
Work out who the policy should apply to, including contractors and other third parties – and the conditions for exemption or exclusion.
3. Communicate with your employees – and offer advice and support
Next, assign responsibilities for implementing your policy in the organisation, with actions and expectations for each level or role.
Include an educational campaign explaining the risks and benefits of vaccination for employees and plan how you will communicate these.
Think about whether and how you plan to combat misinformation.
Simon says: “To pre-empt any confusion, always give employees prior notice that you will be putting a Covid vaccination policy in place.
“Show empathy to the workforce and deal with any complex questions from employees in a sensitive and understanding manner.
“Keep all communications with employees to a single channel, such as one email address and or HR manager.
“Also reassure staff that vaccination data will be kept strictly confidential.”
4. Check your vaccination policy complies with the rules
Make sure your policy is compliant with current rules and regulations.
Once implementation is complete, monitor whether the policy is achieving its aims, including anonymised vaccination rates.
5. Update your policy when required
Finally, keep abreast of developments such as extra vaccination booster rounds, changing government and medical advice, and changing legal issues around vaccinations.
And update your policy accordingly.
Final thoughts on Covid vaccination policies
Covid vaccinations continue to be a tricky issue for businesses.
For example, several well-known companies have found themselves in a legal and reputational wrangle for policies such as cutting sick pay for unvaccinated staff.
This makes clear, carefully written Covid vaccination policies even more important.
But it’s not just about protecting your business and avoiding complex situations.
A good Covid vaccination policy shows employees that you care about their welfare and public health generally.
The right policy will therefore boost your reputation in the eyes of your employees, wider stakeholders and your community.