The debate around vaccine passports has already proven one of the most fierce of the whole Covid-19 pandemic. While most people accepted lockdown and social distancing, grudgingly or otherwise, the idea that people could be denied goods and services if they fail to prove they’ve been vaccinated has rankled with many.
In theory the idea is a sound one, if a venue is only admitting people who have been vaccinated and thus aren’t at risk of catching the virus then it might be able to dispense with social distancing and other restrictions more quickly. In the context of foreign travelers, for instance, a vaccine passport might help ensure new variants of Covid aren’t brought to the UK.
For businesses such as smaller restaurants, pubs, theatres, or sport arenas which are simply not economical to open with social distancing reducing the takings, the idea of going back to normal with the assurance that they can avoid transmission might sound tempting.
The trouble is that using vaccine passports in some venues opens up pitfalls elsewhere. Just as it might be unviable to open a small restaurant at reduced capacity thanks to social distancing, it might be equally unviable for a small office to bring the majority staff back with social distancing in place. Could those offices introduce vaccine passports to get themselves back on track sooner?
On the horizon
These are questions which the government will seek to answer in a report due on 21 June. But some believe office vaccine passports are a strong possibility. “I think it's on the horizon,” says Anil Champaneri, a senior HR consultant at Alcumus, a company which specialises in corporate compliance and risk management. “The fact they're trialling it at large events suggests they're going down that route. I think it is something that may come up, it looks like it may happen, but it's too early to say for definite.”
Certainly some businesses are already taking that stance, certain care homes are mandating that staff be vaccinated if they are caring for vulnerable patients, while Pimlico Plumbers has also announced it is considering a ‘no jab, no job’ policy.
Cabinet is said to be split over whether current health and safety law could be used to force employees to produce proof of vaccination under the auspices of protecting themselves and colleagues which current duty of care laws oblige them to.
One significant problem is that employers mandating vaccine certification risk disenfranchising younger workers, who may not have had the opportunity to get their vaccine until late July. The very demographic who have suffered most in working from home, according to research, might end up being the last ones allowed to return to the office.
Equally, for those who have a valid reason not to be vaccinated such as pregnant women and those with pre-existing health conditions risk being discriminated against by any such policy. “There are going to be some legal hurdles for employers from a HR point of view,” says Champaneri. “We would hope that if certification requirements were introduced there'd be clear guidance from the government about how it'd happen.”
Yet even if the government decides a company can’t mandate its employees produce a vaccine certificate there might be other backdoor methods of ‘encouraging’ employees to get vaccinated.
1. Getting to work
While the government has said vaccine certification should ‘never be required’ to board public transport, once workers arrive at the office, might they be required to update their security passes to prove they were vaccinated? “There are clear data protection implications around holding such information on company systems,” Champaneri concedes. The other question might revolve around where the policy would end. Economic analysis shows that in 2017, sick days relating to the flu cost UK businesses £29m - should employees also have to prove they have received a flu shot?
2. At your desk
If those who had vaccine passports could enjoy unfettered access to the office without the need for social distancing, it might mean that people who had not been vaccinated would end up siloed together in a separate part of the office, heightening their risk factor. Teams would be split up and employees might find it difficult to access those with a different vaccination record to them.
3. Communal spaces
Similarly to the above, if restaurants and gyms are allowed to bring in mandatory vaccine passports for consumers, what could stop a business from banning unvaccinated employees from its staff canteen or on-site gym facilities?
4. Missed opportunities
Particularly in the context of freelance or shift workers it’s easy to imagine that companies might refuse to allow those who hadn’t been vaccinated to pick up work. Equally, unvaccinated workers could be denied opportunities to meet clients, go on business lunches, or represent the business out of the office. For young workers keen to prove themselves and get ahead, this could prove even more difficult.
How employees could push back
In these situations, employees wouldn’t necessarily be totally without recourse. “There are avenues for an employee to pursue,” says Champaneri, who admits that employees who did pursue action against their company might be on stronger footing if they had a genuine reason to refuse the vaccine such as pregnancy or other medical conditions. “You could raise a grievance which is a formal complaint which HR would have to look into. Worst case scenario, if you weren't getting anywhere, they might resign and say they were constructively dismissed and had been discriminated against.”
If an employee did raise a complaint, bosses would have to prove that their actions were reasonable “to protect themselves, their business, and their employees,” explains Champaneri. “If you're working with clients in close proximity and they're vulnerable then clearly you're going to be in a better place to argue that you need employees to be vaccinated.”
Ultimately though, until the legislation is created and tested, it will be difficult to assess exactly how the land will lie for employers keen to make sure their staff are vaccinated.