Pressure is mounting on ministers to outlaw “no jab, no job” policies being implemented by companies, amid warnings firms could be hit by a wave of legal action due to claims of discrimination.
After major US businesses including Google and Facebook announced plans to only allow fully vaccinated staff to set foot in their offices due to the spread of the Delta variant already rampant in the UK, senior government figures on this side of the Atlantic appeared relaxed about other businesses following suit.
The move was welcomed by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, who called it a “good idea” and said the reality was that some firms would require employees to be fully vaccinated – though he added legislation would not be passed to make it mandatory.
But advice from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said it would be “an intrusion on an employee’s body and may discriminate on the basis of disability, or religious or philosophical belief”.
In guidance to its more than 160,000 members, the group, which represents human resources professionals, made clear that businesses “cannot forcibly vaccinate employees or potential employees” – unless legally required. So far the government has only said care home workers in England must be fully vaccinated, with a consultation under way on whether to extend this to NHS staff.
If people were forced to get vaccinated in other roles, that could amount to a criminal offence against the person and claims such as assault and battery, the CIPD said.
The UK equalities watchdog – the Equality and Human Rights Commission – also urged companies not to apply a blanket “no jab, no job” policy, saying their approaches should be “proportionate, non-discriminatory and make provision for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons”.
Further pressure came from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, the dispute resolution group, which said that if staff did not want to get vaccinated, bosses should listen to their concerns, be sensitive towards personal situations and be wary of avoiding discrimination.
Shapps said on Friday that companies may require their staff to be vaccinated due to the nature of their business, or as a tool to combat vaccine hesitancy. He told Sky News: “We are not going to make that legislation that every adult has to be double vaccinated before they go back to the office, but yes it is a good idea and yes some companies will require it.”
His comments came after the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said on Thursday it would be “smart” for businesses to insist staff were fully vaccinated and that he could understand why firms would want to adopt a tough stance.
But the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said while he could see a case for introducing domestic Covid passports that show test as well as vaccine results at mass events, he did not agree with barring people from employment based on their jab status. “For day-to-day routine – access to the office, access to health services or dentistry or even food – I don’t agree,” he said.
The Tory MP Will Wragg said firms should be encouraging staff to get vaccinated rather than threatening them, and added that ministers should “stop encouraging this kind of coercion, which will prove deeply damaging to the fabric of society”.
Serious concerns were also raised by Prof Stephen Reicher, who sits on the government’s behavioural advice group known as SPI-B. He said making vaccines mandatory may be reasonable for those in jobs where they are responsible for the physical care of others – but that for other employers, the negatives outweighed the benefits.
It would disproportionately hit some groups as opposed to others, making jobs “more ethnically and socially exclusive” and lead to “anger and resistance”, decreasing take-up among those who are already hesitant, he told the Guardian.
“These policies carry considerable risks,” Reicher said, who also warned that if people were vaccinated against their will, it may create other forms of resistance to Covid measures. “It is far better and more effective to secure vaccination through engagement rather than through imposition,” he said.
More widely, vaccine passports are being pursued keenly by the government in England as a means of boosting take-up by threatening to restrict entry to some venues, including nightclubs and Premier League football matches. Some Tory MPs have voiced concerns the strategy is unethical – with more than 40 threatening to vote against the documents Boris Johnson has said will be required from the end of September.
Major unions have come out against companies insisting on vaccinations. Christina McAnea, Unison general secretary, said: “The vaccine has saved thousands of lives. But only with widespread take-up can the virus be defeated. Achieving this requires persuasion and encouragement, not compulsion and coercion. Forcing people can only lead to needless confrontation at work and legal cases that could drag on for years. And that’s in no one’s interest.”
Susan Harris, GMB legal director, said: “The way to increase vaccine take-up among workers is to educate and reassure them. Bullying workers into taking a vaccine they are unsure about is cruel, unfair and a recipe for disaster.”
Unite said it was still of the view that any “no jab, no job” demands were “a disgraceful attempt to create a divisive narrative around workers and the vaccine”, which ignores the fact that workers are themselves demanding safe working conditions, engagement with safety reps, effective workplace testing regimes, and proper pay for those who have to self-isolate.
Charlie Mullins, the founder of Pimlico Plumbing, defending having already initiated a policy of insisting staff were fully jabbed, saying he “believed in people’s safety”.
He said no workers were let go if they had a medical exemption, and cited the example of one employee who was reluctant but got the jab after being told by colleagues that not doing so was selfish.
“This is for new people coming on,” he said, adding it had only hit a “very small minority of people”. “It’s about a life and death situation, so we feel very comfortable with it,” Mullins said.